Now That Distance Learning Is The New Floor For DC Education, Students Need Devices And Internet STAT

Yesterday, Mayor Bowser announced that she would not announce what the plan was for re-opening DCPS.

Instead, at the press conference, officials outlined several scenarios for DCPS, including a “hybrid” model of part-time in person instruction, alongside an all-virtual model, all of which they clearly had planned to roll out yesterday as a done deal–then said that they would take time to get feedback in town halls as well as from the health department before making a final decision on any of the scenarios on July 31.

To be sure, re-opening schools for in person instruction is not an easy decision. The problems of not re-opening for instruction (parents unable to work outside the home, jobs lost, children falling further behind, etc.) are as seemingly innumerable as those associated with re-opening (increased spread of the virus, inevitable exposure of teachers and staff, increased costs for social distancing, cleaning, etc.).

Yet while the mayor stated several times in the press conference that in person instruction is frankly better than anything else (echoing the DeVos plan of no plan or support except to re-open regardless), the most curious item (well, aside from the completely unexplained last-minute change of venue from the newly renovated Maury to the state board of ed’s meeting room) was a statement from the chancellor that it was always a “plan” to have DCPS students have digital devices for virtual learning that would, under any of the scenarios the mayor outlined, have to be a part of schooling in the covid pandemic.

Notably, the chancellor dodged stating, in answer to a question, whether all DCPS students have digital devices and internet access–probably because the shameful answer is that they do not.

(Check out this graph, which was tweeted out by the mayor yesterday–note that in the most idealistic scenario, DCPS can meet the digital needs of only 40% of its students.)

In other words, distance learning has been announced as the new floor for all our schools and students going forward–and every DC official at that press conference knew and accepted that not all DCPS students will have digital devices and access to the internet come the start of school year 20-21.

Specifically, even in the face of the city is acknowledging that in person instruction will necessarily be problematic (DCPS summer bridge, for instance, is now virtual), there has been NO word on whether the $11 million needed to provide all DCPS students with digital devices will ever make it into the FY21 budget before the council’s final vote on July 21.

That is the same budget, you will recall, that has NO money in it for protective equipment for staffers or masks or extra cleaning supplies for schools. (Yes—despite the fact that such pandemic gear for schools may amount to a pretty chunk of change.)

Nonetheless, according to some sources DCPS has a full supply of gloves, masks, and hand sanitizer at all its schools for both students and teachers. That is good–if true.

But we also do not know what the CARES Act funding, which could help with that, is or how it will be allocated. Not surprisingly, some charters have said they will not re-open initially at all in person–while other charters have garnered extra loans and DC small business grants, presumably to help fund whatever added expenses that the pandemic presents.

As DC’s education leaders slowly inch toward the reality that re-opening is not just a matter of good cleaning; responsible personal habits; virus testing (eh, what’s that, anyway?); or even supplies of cleaning and protective gear, they need to immediately acknowledge that distance learning will be the backstop to ensuring ALL kids have access to education as long as there is no vaccine.

In other words, we need to ensure NOW that all DCPS students have access to both digital devices and internet.

Yet, despite the best efforts of many parents and great advocacy by Digital Equity in DC Education, both the mayor and the council have not provided $11 million in the FY21 budget for a 1:1 device ratio for DCPS students immediately. Nor is there any guarantee of widely available and affordable municipal internet. In fact, when faced with questions about whether DCPS has enough funding for technology, the agency has always said it has adequate funding–which is clearly not true.

Worse, none of this is a matter of political nicety or even budgeting, but of education itself:

That is, DC guarantees it will educate all of its children. If in person instruction is not full-time (and none of the scenarios outlined yesterday were full-time in person, and it’s very unlikely they ever will be pre-vaccine), AND there is no access to education via distance learning, then children without digital devices and/or internet will inevitably be denied their educations.

As the chancellor made clear yesterday, however, that guarantee of education is secured now in DCPS only by a vague “plan” to (eventually, somehow, somewhere, some day) have a 1:1 device ratio and internet access for all DCPS students.

That is only a plan to fail–and something that a judge somewhere may decide isn’t such a great idea.

Unfortunately, such a disconnect in something as basic as educating children is nothing new in our city.

Take these guidelines created by our office of the state superintendent for education (OSSE) and read these conversations between city education leaders.

It all seems fine and well until you ask

–which children will be in school which days?
–who determines this?
–who performs daily health screenings when we do not even have nurses in every school, much less fulsome staffing?

and

–what guarantee exists for students not cleared for in person schooling to have digital devices and internet access 24/7?

And that’s not even getting into answers to important questions from educators on how to educate children in a pandemic.

Nor is it addressing conditions that DCPS teachers have outlined, which have not yet been met.

And of course there is that little matter of the blatant and inevitable denial of education to children who do not have digital devices and internet, which we know has already happened in some form since school closures in March and continues, unabated.

None Of This Is New (Or, How We Got Here)

Well before the pandemic, and after much parent advocacy in getting city leaders to recognize the fragile state of digital devices in our schools (not enough, too few that worked, poor repair protocols, etc.), DCPS embarked on the Empowered Learners initiative to ensure that by spring 2020, all students in grades 3, 6, and 9 would have a digital device, with the rest of DCPS students having devices in a 1:3 ratio. DCPS would then commit to adding new devices every year, to ensure that all DCPS students would have a digital device by 2022.

To help assess the need, DCPS asked each of its schools to report (on its internal TIPWEB) what devices they had. Then, in the last week of January, every DCPS principal received from DCPS’s central office an inventory of their schools’ electronic devices and what was needed to get to the 1:1 and 3:1 ratios at each school.

Despite a very delayed production, I received that inventory via FOIA just last week. (Yeah.)

In column, B, you can see the number of computers needed, by school, to reach a 1:1 student-device ratio for grades 3, 6, and 9, while column C shows the number needed to bring the other grades up to a 3:1 student-device ratio. Column D appears to reflect the number of existing devices in a school’s inventory (possibly as inventoried by school staff at the start of 2020). The number of new computers each school was supposed to get by March 2020 amounts, roughly, to the numbers in columns B and C added, with the number in column D subtracted.

There are some oddities, of course:

Notwithstanding the late date of this inventory, because the devices counted therein are 3 years old or newer, technically schools could have many more computers in their inventory that are functional but uncounted because of their age.

As it is, schools often supplement whatever DCPS itself funds with what they can fundraise for–and that is not necessarily counted here, either. And because this inventory was staff-driven, if staff was short or without time, this inventory is necessarily not reliable.

And possibly most confounding of all is the fact that before this initiative, individual DCPS schools were responsible for purchasing their own devices with their own DCPS funds—and perhaps obviously, before the pandemic distance learning was not high on anyone’s list of priorities, so the extent to which computers were prioritized at individual schools was highly variable and certainly inequitable over the entire city.

Aligning this DCPS inventory data with each school’s at risk percentage (from the October 2019 audited enrollments) shows that there *seemed* to be some effort within DCPS over time to ensure more devices to schools with more at risk students, but not in a very coordinated or effective way. In addition, some outliers are incredible and unexplained (i.e., how can an entire elementary school have less than 10 devices in the middle of a school year?).

So Where Are We Now With Technology in DCPS?

After January 2020, DCPS spent more than $11 million on digital devices for students, which were supposed to have been distributed according to the needs as outlined in this inventory.

And then we had a pandemic.

So what happened instead of the plan that this inventory prepared for and outlined is that DCPS sent about 10,000 of those newly purchased devices home with students–out of a total of about 18,000 that DCPS had bought this year for this purpose.

The problem now is that we have no idea what that allocation actually was nor where the remaining approximately 8,000 other devices are or have gone to.

(Those are separate FOIAs BTW–good luck with that now that the council has extended FOIA response times to infinity until after the pandemic emergency, which the mayor just announced is continuing until at least October.)

Sooo: Here’s What YOU Need To Do–Because No One Else Will

Instead of committing to a 1:1 digital device to student ratio anytime in the near future, DCPS is turning toward family surveys this summer to assess immediate needs for digital devices and internet, which presumably will occur alongside the town halls announced yesterday.

Effectively, this means that many DCPS families will likely be out of the loop for distance learning come August–not just with devices but also with wifi/internet access.

It’s not merely because surveys often do not reach everyone, but that the people most in need of digital devices may be the most difficult to reach.

And even schools with relatively low at risk populations will inevitably have students who do not have access to the internet and/or digital devices at home. Would a survey capture those students and families? And how would that be dealt with at the school level if the school itself has a low at risk percentage?

Complicating matters is the fact that the council seems to think that if DCPS gets $11 million for an immediate 1:1 digital device ratio, charters are automatically entitled to the same amount–upping the ask to a more difficult-to-achieve $22 million.

While that sentiment is nice, it’s not based in law or even practice, as funds outside the UPSFF (uniform per student funding formula) are routinely granted without both sectors receiving them automatically.

Perhaps more importantly for our council, which has only ONE more vote on the FY21 budget before it passes (July 21), DCPS has at every turn said it has adequate funding for technology–which we know is simply not true.

Now, absent a dedicated revenue stream for an immediate 1:1 device ratio, DCPS will not under any circumstances be able to support distance learning for all its students come August.

Bottom line: Even now, as late as it is, please contact the council and mayor and demand that our children and our families have the tools they need to safely get their educations both at school and at home because distance learning is the new floor for DC public education.

Here’s a helpful list of emails of council, the mayor, and their education points of contact to start:

Phil Mendelson, pmendelson@dccouncil.us (education committee co-chair)
Christina Setlow, csetlow@dccouncil.us
LeKisha Jordan, ljordan@dccouncil.us

David Grosso, dgrosso@dccouncil.us (at large; co-chair of education committee)
Akeem Anderson, aanderson@dccouncil.us

Anita Bonds, abonds@dccouncil.us (at large; education committee member)
David Meadows, dmeadows@dccouncil.us

Charles Allen, callen@dccouncil.us (W6; education committee member)
Laura Marks, lmarks@dccouncil.us

Trayon White, twhite@dccouncil.us (W8; education committee member)
Tracey Jackson, tgjackson@dccouncil.us

Robert White, rwhite@dccouncil.us (at large; education committee member)
Angela Fowlkes, afowlkes@dccouncil.us

Mary Cheh, mcheh@dccouncil.us (W3)
Michael Porcello, mporcello@dccouncil.us

Elissa Silverman, esilverman@dccouncil.us (at large)
Sam Rosen-Amy, srosenamy@dccouncil.us

Brandon Todd, btodd@dccouncil.us (W4)
Manny Geraldo, mgeraldo@dccouncil.us

Brianne Nadeau, bnadeau@dccouncil.us (W1)
Aamir Mansoor, amansoor@dccouncil.us

Vincent Gray, vgray@dccouncil.us (W7)
Terrance Norflis, tnorflis@dccouncil.us

Kenyan McDuffie, kmcduffie@dccouncil.us (W5)
Brian McClure, bmcclure@dccouncil.us

Brooke Pinto, bpinto@dccouncil.us; brooke@brookepintoforward2.com (W2)
Staffer, ella@brookepintoforward2.com

Muriel Bowser, muriel.bowser@dc.gov
John Falcicchio, chief of staff, john.falcicchio@dc.gov
Paul Kihn, deputy mayor for education, paul.kihn@dc.gov

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