Testimony Before the Council of the District of Columbia Committee On Government Operations And Facilities & Committee of the Whole Joint Public Oversight Roundtable on School Facility Conditions During the Re-Opening for School Year 2021-2022

Sep 28, 2021

Good morning, Councilmember White, Chairman Mendelson, and members of the Committee. My name is Shantelle Wright and I am the Interim Director of Advocacy and Policy of the DC Charter School Alliance, the local non-profit that advocates on behalf of public charter schools to ensure that all students in the District receive the great public education they deserve.

On behalf of the DC Charter School community, I’m grateful for the opportunity to speak with you about the readiness of charter school facilities as well as challenges school leaders continue to face in making sure they provide safe learning environments for students and staff this school year.

How Charter Schools Have Adapted Our Facilities

First, I want to start by thanking charter school leaders across the city for all the hard work they put in with their staff over the summer to get their buildings ready to welcome back students, and for all the hard work they continue to do to adapt as necessary going forward.

Charter schools are nimble, innovative, and responsive at their core, and each of them has different models to create unique learning environments for their students. Those principles have been on full display as charter schools weather the challenges brought by the pandemic to continue providing students a high-quality education in safe learning environments.

Our schools have done everything from setting up outdoor tent spaces to serve students lunch to finding ways to expand their facilities to accommodate social distancing measures. It hasn’t always been easy, but our leaders and their staff have taken every challenge presented to them and responded to the best of their abilities, and for that we are grateful.

Space Challenges

Even though our school leaders have found ways to accommodate the myriad needs that arise from educating students safely in a pandemic, they’ve run into a number of barriers that require coordination and collaboration with the city to overcome.

For example, many of our schools have outdoor space that could be leveraged for additional classrooms and outdoor lunch by erecting outdoor structures or using trailers. But as we shared with the Council earlier this year, many schools have reported that the city is requiring permits for both—and that the permitting process is likely to take more than six months. An efficient, cost-effective solution to this problem is simply for the city to expedite or waive the permitting process. Agencies should be collaborating more closely to remove this barrier, because as it stands, school leaders that have outdoor space to leverage cannot do so without a permit— otherwise they’re breaking the law.

Our schools want to be responsive to best practices, the best available science, and to parents’ concerns about eating school lunches indoors. But we raised the alarm about this barrier more than four months ago, and we’re still waiting for the city to act.

Additionally, to address space issues, some of our schools would benefit from partnering with nearby recreation centers or libraries. The Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education should be in charge of setting up these partnerships with the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR), instead of individual schools attempting to do so without the assistance of a citywide coordinated approach. And, schools are reporting that DPR is charging schools for these spaces. The city should ensure these spaces are available without charge to schools who can use them.

Finally, other schools don’t have the benefit of a nearby facility or outdoor areas that could be leveraged for additional classroom space. But with health guidance on physical distancing, they need more space. These schools must have the flexibility to more effectively use their existing facilities, and that means creating more space by removing a significant amount of furniture from the building. But furniture storage is costly.

Timing of Funding to Assist with Reopening Costs

As we’ve testified before the Council many times, managing facilities is costly, and the need to reconfigure existing space or lease extra space to follow distancing guidelines for students and staff is a significant investment. This year, schools have already invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to ensure our buildings can continue to support in-person learning this year.

Mayor Bowser announced on May 27 in a press release that the budget would invest “$10M in additional grants to charter schools to assist with reopening fully in-person for School Year 2021-2022​.” While we have been pleased with our engagement with OSSE on this issue, who heard prior concerns about clarity on the grant application process and have announced applications will open to schools in October, the timing presents challenges to school leaders. The majority of our schools welcomed students back on August 16—nearly six weeks ago.

To compensate for lack of funds to meet facilities needs, schools have had to use funds designated for other important programs. This is precisely why we advocated for an increase in the facilities funding allotment in the last budget cycle. Because consistent funding of our facilities is key for both budget predictability for school leaders and providing a safe learning environment for our students.

Moving Forward

We thank the entire Council for your engagement on the critical topic of reopening school buildings. But to ensure that schools can operate safe school buildings as we continue to face the challenges with the COVID-19 pandemic, we simply need better collaboration and communication with city agencies and leaders. We’re confident that working together and engaging with charter school leaders will benefit the City and the communities our schools serve.

Thank you for your time and attention to this matter, and I welcome your questions.