A Case Study In Inadequate Planning, Budgeting, Communications And Transparency (Digital Devices Update)

[Ed. Note: On Friday, DCPS parent Danica Petroshius sent a plea for DCPS to cover the (as much as 60%!) shortfall in digital devices and internet access before school starts tomorrow, Monday August 31. Below, Petroshius outlines what has happened since her plea: her school has received needed devices, possibly at the expense of other schools, while there is no assurance or proof that any other schools have their needs covered. She provides a helpful outline of what has happened citywide as well as at her own school, which may be useful as you consider sending your own note on the subject to the council and the mayor.]

By Danica Petroshius

Subject: update and response on tech for opening virtually Monday
Date: August 30, 2020 at 1:08:48 PM EDT
To: Parker, Sarah sarah.parker@k12.dc.gov, Bowser, Muriel muriel.bowser@dc.gov, Kihn, Paul Paul.Kihn@dc.gov, Ferebee, Lewis Lewis.Ferebee@k12.dc.gov, Maisterra, Amy Amy.Maisterra@k12.dc.gov, White, Robert rwhite@DCCOUNCIL.US, bpinto@dccouncil.us, dgrosso@dccouncil.us, Laura Marks lmarks@dccouncil.us, Charles Allen callen@dccouncil.us, Mendelson, Phil PMENDELSON@DCCOUNCIL.US, Hulick, Genevieve GHulick@DCCOUNCIL.US, aanderson@dccouncil.us, Setlow, Christina csetlow@DCCOUNCIL.US, Jordan, LeKisha ljordan@DCCOUNCIL.US

Mayor Bower, Chancellor Ferebee, Deputy Mayor Kihn, Chairman Mendelson, Education Co-Chairman Grosso, Councilmember Allen, Councilmember Pinto, Councilmember White,

I received the below response from DCPS to my requests for support for ensuring every child has a compatible, internet-connected device by start of school Monday citywide and at our school Capitol Hill Montessori (CHML).

The response was vague, confusing, and did not provide direct answers. On my own, I have researched and figured out the answers for CHML–which only leads to more questions about other schools’ needs.

I am wholly disappointed in the inadequate planning, budgeting, communications and transparency around technology for planning to open schools virtually on Monday. Following are the facts that I have collected to date. This clearly shows we have more work to do and how this process failed in planning, budgeting, communications and transparency.

I ask you, Mayor Bowser, to instruct your team to accelerate tech distribution to every school for every child by tonight and to provide a detailed update to every school about their specific tech needs status by tonight. Parents deserve that at a minimum. I also ask that you provide every school and family a specific date that they can be prepared to pick up early childhood education (ECE) devices. Parents need the courtesy from you to be able to plan time off of work, travel across town and when they can start virtual learning.

Councilmembers, I ask you to take a look at the oversight and enforcement needed ahead outlined below and start planning for that now so that we are never in this situation again.

CASE STUDY IN INADEQUATE PLANNING, BUDGETING, COMMUNICATIONS AND TRANSPARENCY

The CHML story within the larger DCPS tech story shines a bright light on the lack of planning, budgeting, communications and transparency by the Mayor, DCPS and Council to open virtual schooling well. This is what really happened and what full transparency looks like. We need to have full transparency to be able to work together on solutions. It is important to recognize that I prepared this analysis in response to vague and confusing communications from DCPS–communications that try to gaslight parents and blame principals instead of providing transparent, timely information. I desperately want our system to start putting transparency first so that we can all work together on solutions. Information is power. Information shared, shares power. Shared power creates understanding and trust. Understanding and trust creates communities that will embrace challenges when things get tough and will do even more to support you. Right now, shared knowledge, power, and trust do not exist.

No one wants DCPS to succeed more than I do–and there are many in DCPS central staff, educators and staff in DCPS schools, and parents who feel just as strongly as I do. But, the system and city leaders too often work against that success. Good planning, budgeting, communications, and full transparency lead to more equity, more progress and stronger schools. Join us.

ANALYSIS

What is good about this case study

In the end, CHML K-8 students who need a device will have one for start of school on Monday. Thank you.

What is troubling about this timeline

***Lack of planning and budget. The Mayor and DCPS clearly did not execute the purchasing and planning for tech well. They should have been purchasing early in the summer to be ready. We were going to need computers for every student whether all virtual or hybrid, but they disadvantaged students by waiting until 7/31 to order. Other systems in the area had tech distribution all summer and committed to a 1:1 student device ratio. Now we have ECE starting school without devices, some K-8 students receiving computers last minute, and lack of clarity about whether every K-12 student has a working, compatible, internet-connected device in hand today.

***Lack of transparency. DCPS was not transparent with Council or the community about its tech preparedness for the start of school and did not plan an adequate budget or system.

***Subtle blaming of schools/principals for last-minute requests. The communications below from DCPS make subtle jabs at schools for late requests. This is unfounded and projecting. DCPS should have planned for massive undercounting in their survey (many told them they should). They should have assumed families (this is common sense if you understand communities) would have needs last minute because they aren’t connected in the summer generally to schools; they don’t have internet or data plans the survey required for completion (we have heard some families have had to cut off cell data plans for economic hardship); and DCPS changed specs after the survey went out. DCPS should have planned for all of that. Trying to push this failure–and potential retribution on schools–is wrong and poor leadership.

***Scrambling to fill holes due to failure to plan adequately for the system. DCPS responded to CHML advocacy by borrowing computers from other schools. This raises so many questions that clearly hurt the system: who is losing computers for CHML gain? Did some schools have extras and others not? Why? Why were the counts so wrong? Why did it take active parents for DCPS to respond to a need and respond with borrowing, not providing? How many other schools are still waiting for K-12 computers?

***Under-supporting our ECE community. We have left our ECE families–some new to DCPS–with a clear message that the ECE program is less important and confusing. Left them wondering how to manage their children in their homes until devices arrive mid-September when “school starts 8/31.” Wondering what expectations there are for ECE in the meantime. And, putting additional burdens on principals and teachers to find families and communicate them knowing many do not have adequate tech to make the connections.

***Lack of coordination with OCTO about upcoming free internet for SNAP/TANF families. The Mayor, DCPS, and OCTO should have been planning a tech rollout all summer that will give over 20,000 families adequate time to understand, apply for, and receive free internet before school starts. This is a complete failure to leverage key resources for families in a timely way to meet their needs.

***Council sat back and watched. Until parents activated this past Friday, Council has been sitting back and watching this effort fail. All summer, Council could have been: holding regular hearings on one of the most important “starts” we have during the pandemic–full-scale virtual school for all students; pushing for specific follow-up with agencies and making the answers public; leveraging the voice of media; checking the DCPS story with people on the ground–teachers, principals, and parents–to ensure the reality matches the hype; walking into agencies & demanding answers. There are now enforcement actions that Council should plan going forward, for example: 1) what emergency funding this fall is needed for ensuring equity in our virtual environment; 2) who will be allowed to spend that money on behalf of DCPS who did not do it well the first time and with what oversight; 3) engaging the DC Auditor to develop a public report to deeply understand what worked in this process and what didn’t, where the dollars were spent, how much DCPS relied on PTA giving, private giving and older computers versus using the tax dollars to provide all students up-to-date, compatible computers; 4) demanding regular reports from OSSE about how all federal funds, including CARES Act funding, are being distributed, when they are being distributed, which LEAs are receiving them, how much each LEA receives, and what each LEA is using the funds for; 5) deeply understanding why OCTO waited so long to activate on critical free Internet. Analyze all of this and create new policy, budget or enforcement mechanisms to address challenges. This would be a good start for putting us back on track with the right balance of budget, implementation, oversight and enforcement that will help lead us to ensuring equity and progress for all students.

ACTUAL TIMELINE

***Summer starts – time to plan. Throughout summer, parents asked whether school would start in person or virtually. Indications were that it would be a hybrid or virtual. So, the parent expectation was that DCPS would be planning early on for every child to have a computer by start of school, PK-12, as a computer is necessary in either scenario.

***In June, parents and community members advocated for 1:1 to ensure equity – but DCPS and the mayor said “no,” and Council agreed. Part of what DCPS did is to consider the number of computers in schools’ existing inventories (which were purchased by individual school budgets or in some cases by community partners or PTAs) when deciding a new device allocation to schools. This is a problem because the specs changed later in the summer, some of those devices were not in great shape, and that assumes inequities from the start. They also did this without system-wide data. Yet as you will see later in this timeline, we should have planned/bought for 1:1 to begin with to ensure every child had a computer by start of school and purchased enough computers early on to avoid a situation of individual schools having to beg and borrow for computers last minute–and to avoid opening school without ECE devices, leaving each ECE school to figure out how to kick off school with their newest/youngest students without devices and ubiquitous access for families. And a reminder: DCPS never entertained the idea of ensuring all staff and educators have the computers and internet to adequately work virtually to support all students. This is a MAJOR missed action by the Mayor, DCPS and the Council that undermines equity.

***Through July 21, CHML works hard to count enrollment – which drives computer need. At the July 21 CHML LSAT meeting, Principal reported that CHML is the first school to meet 100% enrollment in DCPS. This is important to allow school to understand exactly who is attending and find out their computer needs.

***July 22, DCPS released its tech survey asking for responses by 7/31 but stating the survey would remain open throughout August. Principals were to rely on the survey for their computer allocations from DCPS.

***July 30, DCPS announces all schools will be virtual through November 6.

***July 31 DCPS ordered $6.9M worth of computers. A very late order for 8/31 start of school and clearly not an order reflecting exact need because the survey is open all of August. So, did DCPS order enough/assume undercount? See a screenshot of the order here.

***August 13, DCPS announced new device specs. DCPS sent out an email with the specs needed to comply with their new online systems, almost a MONTH AFTER the survey was released. Parents now had to reassess the computers they bought or already had. DCPS would not have released this without the work of Digital Equity in DC Education requesting and pushing them to do so, which turned out to be enormously helpful, though frustrating in how late it was. Some people had bought the wrong device and had to spend additional resources to correct it.

***Initial counts showed need for devices. On August 18 CHML LSAT meeting, Principal reported CHML needed at least 60 additional computers, some for K-12, some for ECE. It became clear that the DCPS survey was inadequate as many families had not responded, so principal had to reach out family by family to ask for their tech needs. PTSO, LSAT and Principal agreed to continue communications to ensure every family reported their devices needs to the Principal. We also agreed to redistribute the new DCPS specs so that parents had good information on tech needs in case they missed it.

***Counts for devices needed grow. Not surprisingly, after DCPS changed the specs POST survey and many parents never received the survey (you had to have some kind of data plan/internet to receive and do it, and some families don’t), more families communicated their need for computers, leading to a need at CHML for 51 computers for K-8 and 130 ECE devices.

***Principal sets device distribution for Friday August 28–3 days before school begins–from 10 am-2 pm for devices promised for K-8. Principal planned on a Friday August 28 computer distribution that was well communicated and organized–just needed the devices.

***Friday August 28 9:15 AM Principal cancels device distribution via text and robo call due to DCPS delays. Parents are angry and frustrated – rightly so. People work, have obligations and travel across the city can be difficult last minute. Now parents don’t know how they will be ready for Monday. Students with devices begin practicing Canvas and getting ready for online school. Some students cannot because devices are not available. Parents and community members activate and find out that other schools have similar challenges.

***Friday night August 28, DCPS borrows 20 computers from a high school to partially meet CHML need.

***Saturday August 29, CHML Principal distributes 20 computers to K-8 families that need them.

***Saturday August 29 late PM, DCPS finds another 20 computers to borrow from another school to meet CHML need.

***Saturday August 29, the deputy mayor for education (DME) provides initial information on OCTO funding for SNAP/TANF families. In response to Digital Equity for Education in DC questions about when OCTO will start giving public information about free internet for eligible families, DME tweets the following: “Beginning Tuesday, September 7, DC Government will begin reaching out directly to SNAP- and TANF-eligible households with PK3-12 grade students enrolled in a DCPS or public charter school.” This initial outreach is a week after virtual school starts. A complete disconnect for the unconnected.

***Sunday August 30 mid-morning, Principal receives confirmation that the 2nd 20 computers are being delivered. She will work to distribute them same day to families if she can get in contact with them. DPCS and the principal work together to determine the final need for K-8 computers and that 40 will suffice, rather than the initial 51 called for. It is unclear whether these borrowed computers will become permanent to CHML or whether there will be another redistribution later. In addition, the 130 ECE devices will not arrive until mid-September. CHML plans to have teachers working with ECE families on Monday despite lack of devices.

Below is the exact email DCPS sent. Here I annotate it in bold, italics, and strikeouts for what an honest, transparent, helpful email from DCPS would look like if we have transparency and partnership as our goal.

Annotated email from DCPS:

Danica- sorry for the delay and thank you as always for your advocacy on behalf of all of our students and families.

I wanted to respond to your email on behalf of the Chancellor.

You may have already seen some version of this communication the Chancellor shared with City Council but I want to make sure you receive it as well. I believe it will answer many of your concerns, but please let me know if you have any remaining.

You should also know that students who need any tech support are encouraged to call our Technical Support Hotline at 202-442-5885 where we will have a support team available for families beginning Monday, 8/31. Thanks for helping us make sure everyone is aware of this resource.

Again, thank you and have a great first day on Monday!

Sarah

Sarah Latterner Parker
Deputy Chief, Community Engagement
Communications and Engagement Office
Office of the Chief of Staff
District of Columbia Public Schools
1200 First Street, NE
Washington, DC 20002
T (202) 442-5308
C (202) 553-0519
E sarah.parker@dc.gov

[boldface & strikeouts below = Danica Petrohsius’s edits on forwarded email from DCPS below]

Please know that DCPS is working tirelessly to ensure a strong reopening on Monday. We have been able to touch base with Capitol Hill Montessori and are confident that we will be able to meet the device need. We have worked with your principal to determine that 40 K-8 computers are needed to meet CHML need.

To share additional context, we projected initial device distribution to schools based primarily on survey responses and school inventory. We understand that across our schools, some parents did not complete the survey or could not access it. We know that our great principals have had to work hard to contact each family in August to find out their device needs. So, we know that the initial survey results and later actual need may change – but we planned for that. We have stock in hand to address that expected additional need. So, school leaders also reviewed their device allocations and shared additional context or needs for their schools. We understand that this was just an estimate and have monitored demand at the school-level so we can respond accordingly.

For Capitol Hill Montessori, they were able to begin distributing devices this week and did raise a need for additional devices above what was initially projected by the survey. This is no way to put blame on any of our principals – we expected and planned for the fact that device need would change and grow up until school started. We have stockpiles ready to distribute as needed. They CHML received a supplement yesterday of 20 K-8 computers borrowed from one of our high schools. And we plan to borrow another 20 K-8 computers from another school for distribution Sunday. We have worked with your principal and we know that those 40 computers will meet the need to start school Monday, and DCPS will continue to address any additional needs. We are growing our inventory to more than 45,000 devices for students in grades preK-12, which significantly exceeds the projected demand based both on survey and other comparable districts. We will continue to communicate with the principal and the CHML community about how those 40 computers will be counted–whether as borrowed or shifted to permanent CHML property.

In addition, we are sending an email to each DCPS school community through our principals to share with them this same information about their specific school: how many devices they still need to meet their need, when those needs will be met, or if those needs will be met already.

I do want to share that the start of the school year will look different for our Pre-K students and families. Beginning next week, Pre-K teachers will reach out to their families between Monday and Wednesday to say hello, get to know them, and share more information about what the first few weeks of Pre-K instruction will look like. We understand that may be difficult for the many families that do not yet have a device, internet or data plans on their cell phones. We appreciate the extra work each of our principals and teachers will have to do to reach each family to ensure that they are welcomed and understand how learning will work going forward. And to remind them about how and when they will be able to pick up their Pre-K students will receive their iPads by mid-September, X date in September in time for the start of online learning. Families who need an iPad for their Pre-K student can still request one at dcps.tech/survey. Families can also pick up other Pre-K learning materials at any of the 20 elementary school meal sites on September 1, 2, or 3 from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.


Thank you for your consideration,

Danica

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