That Time When A Neutered Council And An Angered Executive Got Together Over A Bombastic Letter . . .

DCPS may have horrific numbers of covid cases, burned-out staff, nonworking HVAC in a third of its schools, outstanding work orders in yet more, poor contact tracing, a lack of textbooks, nontesting of symptomatic students, not even 10% testing of asymptomatic students, poor quarantine learning, parents and students penalized (with unexcused absences for quarantining and reports to CFSA alongside disenrollment and refusal of re-enrollment for keeping unvaccinated kids home), and a shortage of substitute teachers.

But at her September 20 press conference, Mayor Bowser did not appear to let any of that bother her–except inasmuch as she announced a new requirement for all school staff and student athletes to be vaccinated. (Yes, Virginia, even in DC charter schools! Which is pretty amazing, given how often DC leaders say they cannot make rules for charters because they are independent and private—except for the money, of course.)

So it was that on October 3, two days before the council passed emergency legislation on October 5 to take the smallest of small steps to expand virtual learning, the mayor sent a letter to the council chair, noting that she was “very troubled and angered” by that mere possibility.

She should not have been.

The emergency bill expands virtual instruction to only 350 students in DCPS—albeit to “no less than” 3% of charter students. It also slowly expands testing in schools; makes permitting for outdoor learning and eating easier; and helps excuse some covid-related absences. An amendment by Elissa Silverman (who characterized the mayor’s October 3 letter as “bombastic” and “bluster”—see the council meeting video at the 3 hour, 11 minute mark) increases notification of covid cases to (wait for it) entire classrooms.

If all that seems too little too late, particularly for DCPS, it’s because it is.

Consider that before crafting that emergency legislation, the council held two hearings—one on September 21 and another on September 28 (on school re-opening and school facilities, respectively)—in which about 100 parents, teachers, and residents testified about unsafe conditions in our schools, the need for a virtual option, and nonexistent testing and slow reporting—along with heartbreaking reports of disenrollment and reporting to CFSA.

While the September 21 hearing memorably featured parent Steve Beam calling the council “neutered” for how little the council had done to that point (see it on the video at the 1:33:50 mark, or by scanning the QR code here), perhaps the best synopsis of civic inaction concerning our schools was on September 28, in the testimony of DCPS budget expert Mary Levy. After showing how disparities in modernizations have predictable (and preventable) public health consequences with covid, Levy asked the following:

“Why do DC officials have so little respect for parents that they refuse to respect demonstrable needs of some for distance learning and indeed, refuse to believe their eyewitness reports of what is actually happening in schools? . . . Where is any sense of urgency? Are we happy as long as we can have indoor dining and live performances in theaters and concert venues for the well-to-do, vaccinated adults from around the region? As COVID spreads through schools, it will rebound right back into the community, especially the communities hardest hit and least vaccinated, people of color and in vulnerable states of health. Do they and their children generally not count?”

Sadly, it seems we have an answer for Levy’s last question, in the wake of the mayor’s determination to not change course in DCPS for any reason and the passage of the council’s October 5 emergency legislation.

Specifically: expanding a virtual option for all comers was literally never on the table, since the council prefers not to enact emergency legislation that would entail any fiscal cost–despite all that federal funding. With sick (or dead) family members, staff, and kids apparently not figuring into DC’s official accounting, capping DCPS at 350 students only in virtual instruction with thousands left without robust (or any!) instruction in quarantine (and charters doing whatever they want) is, quite literally, sickening.

Not to mention that it’s also grotesquely ironic:

No DC leader has ever appeared concerned about the ruinous fiscal consequences of DC’s school proliferation, with repeated closures and 20,000+ unfilled seats in the wake of new schools and expansions every year. While one may wax hopeful about the charter board’s self-imposed moratorium on new schools or expansions for the next year, expecting those who profit from proliferation to not proliferate is fantasy, not hope.

Nonetheless, hope springs eternal, as the council has hearings for new (and newly revivified) legislation that may make life better for our schools and the people in them.

Here’s a round-up:

***October 12, 9 am, hearing on B24-66, Safe Passage To School Expansion Act

In the wake of two children and their father being hit by a car on walk to school day (along with numerous other near misses and not-misses), any public discussion of safe passage is timely. This bill would establish an office to ensure safe passage during the school year and also provide a shuttle from metro stations to schools “within a priority area with the fewest public transportation options.”

While this bill was introduced in February, it is not clear what the delay was, the cost for implementing it, or what LEAs will be prioritized–nor what constitutes a “priority area with the fewest public transportation options.”

***October 20, 11 am, hearing on B24-200, Internet Equity Amendment Act of 2021

Introduced in April, this legislation would ensure that the office of the chief technology officer (OCTO) would report on internet access in DC and provide DC residents high-speed internet, which many families (still) lack for virtual learning.

***October 26, 11 am, hearing on two bills on changing governance of public schools, both introduced in February:

B24-80 (DC State Education Agency Independence Amendment Act of 2021) requires that the office of the state superintendent of education (OSSE) report to the elected state board of education, which currently has no authority over any education agency.

B24-101 (OSSE Independence Amendment Act of 2021) would make OSSE an independent agency and require it to verify data produced by LEAs.

The need for OSSE independence and strengthening has been proven over and over since mayoral control of schools in 2007. Indeed, something like these two bills was introduced in 2018, by the last chair of the late-lamented education committee, David Grosso. But within a week of a hearing being scheduled for both of those 2018 bills (B22-947 and B22-952), the hearing was cancelled and the bills died.

(At least they kinda got scheduled for a hearing; the next year a bill calling for an early warning system (B23-259) simply died a quiet death. That may in fact be the fate for two other bills introduced in 2021 that would affect school operations. B24-100 (establishing an early warning system for students in academic danger) and B24-103 (establishing a commission of the state board of education to regulate policies in DCPS with a “disparate impact on students and schools”) have thus far gone nowhere.)

***October 27, 10 am, hearing B24-423, Coronavirus Immunization of School Students And Early Childhood Workers Amendment Act of 2021

Introduced on October 4, this legislation would mandate student vaccinations in all of DC’s publicly funded schools. Last week, the HSA of Walls high school asked the mayor and council chair for this, and with the expectation of the vaccine being approved for younger ages, a vaccination mandate could be a game-changer for school safety.

***November 5, 12 pm, hearing on B24-77, DCPS Technology Equity Act of 2021

Long sought by DC education advocates including Digital Equity in DC Education, this legislation was introduced in February and would require DCPS to have a tech plan, including 1:1 device ratios for students and teachers; IT support both in school and remotely; and internet access for all in schools and homes.

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