Good afternoon, Chairman Mendelson and members of the Committee. My name is Shannon Hodge and I am the Founding Executive Director 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.
I want to start by saying thank you to the entire Council for your engagement on the critical topic of reopening school buildings. We know that your constituents are reaching out to you as they try to navigate these difficult times, and we see how dedicated you are to making sure their needs are met and they remain informed about what’s happening across the city. You have heard from and listened to school community members, including leaders, share their challenges and struggles, and you have stepped up to do what you can to ensure that students have the best possible educational experiences during this global pandemic. And for that, I thank you.
On behalf of the DC Alliance and our members, I also want to thank every DC charter school staff member who has been working tirelessly every day to create and sustain safe, affirming, world-class learning environments for their students under very difficult circumstances. Our school leaders, teachers, school counselors, custodians, maintenance workers, aides, social workers, and support staff are exhausted. But they’re dedicated to showing up everyday to ensure our students are safe and getting the education they deserve. And for that, I thank them.
Last, but certainly not least, I thank the public school students and their families who are navigating the challenging terrain that is public education during a pandemic. In the last year and a half, we have asked a tremendous amount from students and families. We have asked them to make decisions with confusing, conflicting, incomplete, or incomprehensible information. We have asked them to trust us with their health and safety. We have asked them to set aside their fears and focus as much as possible on schooling. It hasn’t been easy, and it hasn’t been smooth. But tens of thousands of students are learning more this year than they were at this time last year, thanks to their perseverance and that of their parents. And for that, I thank them.
Start-of-School Year Challenges
Today, as for much of the past year, I come to you to share insights about what’s happening in charter schools to help inform your decision-making and your engagement with the public. Today, I will discuss three challenges charter leaders are facing in the opening weeks of the school year as they work to safely educate the 44,000 students who attend public charter schools: implementing vaccine mandates; an upcoming enrollment deadline; and conflicting public health guidance. We look forward to continuing to work with you and the Administration to make sure that all DC students have access to the very best resources and opportunities.
Coordination Is Critical to Successfully Implement Vaccine Mandates
DC’s public charter schools strongly support requiring COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of employment for public school personnel. In fact, many charter schools had already imposed these vaccine mandates before Mayor Bowser’s announcement of a citywide vaccine mandate for public school staff. Some leaders have serious concerns about implementation and potentially unintended consequences. Careful coordination with the city—not just about the mandate policy but also about its implementation—is critical to minimize disruption to educational environments.
For example, the staff most likely to be vaccine hesitant are mission-critical support staff like cafeteria workers, teacher’s aides, and after-school personnel. Many school leaders have expressed concerns about losing these staff members when hiring and retaining personnel is already difficult due to the pandemic. Yet, it’s inevitable that vaccine mandates will have a disproportionate effect on support staff and staff of color, who are most likely to be vaccine hesitant or resistant. Schools cannot withstand the widespread exodus of staff who are critical to the success of schools. While each school can and likely will develop its own policies and strategies to retain and support vaccine hesitant staff, effectively mitigating a potential citywide issue requires a citywide strategy. Charter school leaders want to work together with Mayor Bowser, DC Public Schools, and DC Health to ensure we are all providing safe learning spaces and adequately protecting students and staff in the fight against COVID-19.
We support Mayor Bowser’s announcement of mandatory COVID-19 vaccination for student athletes, and we anticipate continued discussion about expanding student vaccine requirements. And our schools are eager to collaborate with the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) and DC Health if and when they begin to plan for widespread student vaccine mandates. However, school leaders are tremendously concerned about the implementation of student vaccine requirements. Unsurprisingly, they once again believe that careful coordination is necessary before any mandate is imposed. City officials and school leaders need to be able to answer the many questions that will arise, including for example:
- Will schools be required to keep unvaccinated students enrolled?
- What truancy guidelines will apply to unvaccinated students?
- How will the city make sure that all students have easy access to the vaccines?
- What new incentives will the city put in place for unvaccinated students?
These are just examples of concerns that need to be carefully—but swiftly—considered before imposing any additional student vaccine mandates. The failure to do so will ensure that schools, parents, and students are left confused and frustrated.
A second, looming challenge school leaders are facing concerns student enrollment—in particular how OSSE’s enrollment policies will have a negative impact on funding for charter local education agencies. We are aware that a substantial percentage of parents have enrolled their children in school, but have yet to send them inside a school building for a variety of reasons—most notably that they are concerned for their safety. These students’ paperwork is complete and submitted, but they haven’t yet spent a day at a school facility. These students are what we call “Stage 4” students.
The challenge with the existing policy is that charter schools will not receive any funding for those students unless they have spent at least one day inside of a school building on or before October 5 (“Count Day”). At this point, they are considered “Stage 5” students. Unfortunately, if a student isn’t Stage 5 by October 5—two weeks from today—charter schools will receive no funding this school year for that student under OSSE’s current policies. (1) This is true even if the student attends school in person the very next day (i.e., October 6) and comes every day for the remainder of the school year.
Our school leaders have a great deal of empathy for parents concerned about the safety of their students, and they understand why some parents have decided to keep their students at home due to the pandemic. Yet, given the ever-changing nature of these times, leaders expect even the most reluctant parents to want to send their children to school for in-person learning at some point this school year. But without a shift in OSSE policy to accommodate where many students and families are, our schools will soon be faced with challenging educational and financial decisions due to the number of students remaining at Stage 4. Charter schools are simply not able to forego funding for a large number of students. (2)
Our member schools would like to engage with the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education (DME), OSSE, and the Council on this issue to find ways to fully serve all students—including students whose parents may not be fully comfortable yet sending their children to school buildings. But to do that, we believe adjustments to the current enrollment policies are necessary to address the unique challenges we continue to face with COVID-19.
Conflicting Public Health Guidance from City Agencies
Now that students have returned to school buildings, leaders are facing a number of complex challenges in interpreting public health guidance—particularly quarantine-related guidance. Many of our schools are reporting that DC Health contact tracers are giving conflicting information to schools and families about which students are considered close contacts and the number of days students are required to quarantine when they have been identified as a close contact.
This lack of clarity continues to put school leaders in difficult positions. They need clear, accurate, and timely communication with city agencies about changing public health guidance and other programmatic changes that will affect their operations. Giving conflicting information to families is neither clear nor accurate, and it prevents school leaders from being responsive and attentive to the needs of their communities.
What we need are a small number of dedicated DC Health contact tracers who are deeply trained in public guidance for school settings. This simple adjustment would eliminate most of the conflicting information schools and families have received on quarantining and other public health guidance. As I’ve said before this committee many times, better coordination and communication with DC Health and other city agencies would enable school leaders to appropriately adjust their operating procedures and reinforce public health guidance within their school communities.
DC has always been a place where innovation and excellence in public education have thrived. Charter schools are nimble, innovative, and responsive at their core, and that has enabled them to adapt throughout the pandemic. But to ensure that staff and students are operating in safe learning environments, 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.
(1) The District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) system receives UPSFF funding based on enrollment projections rather than actual enrollment. As a result, the issue of Stage 4 enrollment versus Stage 5 enrollment does not affect DCPS in the same way that it affects public charter schools.
(2) The budget stabilization provision the Council included in the FY22 would help reduce, but not eliminate, the financial implications of this enrollment issue for adult and residential charter schools and a few early childhood charter schools.