Disconnecting From The Public On The Road To Re-Opening

Tomorrow, January 21 starting at 1 pm, the DC Council will hold a hearing on DCPS’s imminent re-opening. There are at least 50 public witnesses signed up to deliver their testimony during the hearing.

But as with the December 2 hearing on DCPS re-opening, not all public witnesses who signed up to deliver testimony during the hearing made the cut for what was, pre-pandemic, a commonplace and relatively accessible exercise of testifying during live hearings.

As if to signal a new order of democracy (i.e., one in which the DC public voice gets to be literally heard only with luck, connections, and/or fast emailing), the council will also be holding only one oversight hearing on education this spring that permits public witnesses (March 9). Although there is currently some confusion as to whether the council schedule has a typo (inasmuch as the hearing was noticed only for DCPS and may actually encompass all DC education agencies), the reality remains that this lonely only hearing is likely to be as limited in capacity for public voice as the earlier council hearings on re-opening.

For those at home doing math, this amounts to one hearing, with limited live public input, for education agencies that together are appropriated about $2.5 BILLION in DC taxpayer funds annually.

[Confidential note to council chair Phil Mendelson: Such a shame we don’t have good internet and digital capacity to be able to accommodate all members of the public who want to be heard during hearings! I am certain you can imagine how difficult distance learning is with such shortfalls. If only people would rise up and demand digital equity in our public sphere! Oh, wait.]

Meanwhile, back at (my) DC ranch, our DCPS children and teachers have been since August expected to show up, virtually, 4 days a week and, now with re-opening, in some combination of in person and virtually.

So gotta ask:

If DCPS is re-opening, and digital capacity is so limited such that public witnesses have to be culled from live council hearings on education, why isn’t the DC Council doing in person hearings on education?

For an answer, we should look to two public education meetings held last week, on January 13 (at the same time!).

One meeting was the state board of education’s monthly public meeting, and the other was a “teletown hall” held by DCPS and the mayor on the term 3 re-opening plan (to be repeated on January 27 at 5 pm).

Notwithstanding the chancellor’s assertion during the latter that DCPS pursued a “grassroots” effort in its re-opening (which is kinda sorta contradicted by the lack of meaningful and timely involvement of parents, teachers, & students for the better part of a year—details!), that teletown hall nonetheless outlined helpful information, including HVAC upgrades and asymptomatic and symptomatic testing of staff and students.

But questions from the public began only at the 26-minute mark of the 34-minute event. There is no chat commentary in the video, and answers to the five (!) questions from the public were necessarily limited:

–How were teachers engaged in the term 3 process? The reopen community corps.

–If schools want to use outdoor space, what should they do if they need money for that? This is encouraged and DCPS is “open” to supporting schools in that.

–Will students with IEPs get therapy in person? The focus is on special education students to have as many seats as possible, including in self-contained SPED classes, and the goal is for many “related” services.

–Are school nurses a part of term 3? The expectation is that they will be, since they have already been there.

–Discuss asymptomatic testing in students and teachers: Every 10 days on site for students with a valid consent form; staff plan is a weekly mail-in test form.

–What is the isolation protocol if a student tests positive? DC department of health will follow up with any close contacts, who are those with close proximity for more than 15 min or closer than 6 feet.

But far worse than such purposefully forced public brevity was what was not discussed at that meeting, including

–lack of vaccines nationwide as well as locally;
–poor and inequitable local distribution of the same;
–long-term effects of covid infection, which has disproportionately hit DC’s poor;
–long commutes for children to their schools while transit cuts loom;
–lack of digital equity resulting in distance learning failures;
–the ongoing trauma of economic collapse, covid deaths, and an attempted coup at the figurative (and literal!) doorsteps of DC schools;
–high (and increasing) levels of community covid transmission in DC; and
–the inability to guarantee that all teachers will be vaccinated at least a week before in person school starts on February 1.

That last point is important inasmuch as it takes at least a week for immunity to be achieved after vaccination. As DCPS announced this week (confirming information presented at its 1/13 teletown hall) that January 25 is a target date to start staff vaccination, it is now inevitable that some amount of DCPS staff will go into in person learning on February 1 without vaccinations and/or immunity.

As bad as that (lack of) planning is, it was hardly that meeting’s only disconnect from the public who actually funds it.

The chancellor noted, for instance, that families should “expect to receive” information on their school re-opening plans “this week.”

I don’t know about anyone else, but I am still waiting.

In fact yesterday, on the DCPS reopen website, none of the secondary schools I clicked on had any re-opening checklists (they do today BTW), and the re-open plans I was able to find for elementary schools dated from October (and appear to still do so)—well before all of these protocols were formulated (as well as before any agreement with the WTU about returning).

Similar disconnects were echoed in the other public education meeting on January 13, of the DC state board of education, titled thusly on the board’s website: “State Board hears from panel on learning loss during COVID.”

And indeed, a panel of two economists along with two education researchers spoke about their research on that topic.

Setting aside for a moment economists weighing in on learning loss in the pandemic (why not doctors or psychologists or social workers or–here’s a wild guess–actual teachers?), plenty of public witnesses testified that evening about the dangers of re-opening DCPS and loss–so much loss . . .

Of life.

Now, while all of us DC taxpayers should rejoice in the fact that at least one of our DC elected bodies doesn’t seem to have technological problems in accommodating public voices live for hours running, the fundamental disconnect underscored in both of those meetings (learning loss in the pandemic versus loss of life) makes me think that there is an underlying economic imperative to re-opening schools, such that even knowing you will expose staff to a deadly virus isn’t enough to say, “hmm, maybe we’d better wait on this re-opening until every returning staff member has had a week after the first vaccine dose.”

[Confidential note to self: Could this push to re-open have something to do with covid’s impact on enrollment and thus public education revenues, which privatizers (who give mightily to elected officials) depend on and that economists, among others, are studying? I know, I know–crazy, but there it is.]

The (sick) irony here is that learning loss in DC, now and historically, has been an integral part of our boundaries, closures, ratings, and choice.

That is, we have closed schools that have had majorities of students with low test scores and were under-enrolled and/or under-resourced (both possibly a result of those low test scores).

What no one is saying is that those low test scores reflect some degree of learning loss.

Except that we don’t call it that–even though staff at DCPS high schools of right can speak volubly about learning loss of students before they ever walk into their high school. Indeed, rather than talking about learning loss not in a pandemic, we use test scores to be both bellwether and solution, the numerically pretty underpinning of a system that prioritizes not learning loss, but choice and churn.

So it is not an exaggeration to say that in our city, where our entire system of school choice is predicated on parents being able to opt out of schools that they feel are not good, for whatever reason, learning loss is central to that game.

As inimitable parent and ed researcher Betsy Wolf has noted, however, the real concern in the pandemic is “disproportionate impact,” not learning loss per se. But, she notes, “the dominant proposed solution has been to re-open schools for in-person learning, yet the majority of families whose students are experiencing disproportionate impact don’t feel comfortable returning.”

No kidding.

Just don’t hold your breath for a DC Council meeting during this pandemic at which you can say that in real time.

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