As promised in my last newsletter, I'm dedicating the bulk of today's update to one of the most challenging aspects of the pandemic: our education system. As a programming note, there are some very important updates about the switch being made to vaccine appointment registration (something I've been pushing for to move away from the weekly "competition" among neighbors that left so many frustrated).
It starts tomorrow! So if you're not looking for the education update, please be sure to skip down to read about these critical updates.
On education, there are no good options here that are satisfactory for everyone involved. As a parent, I'm as frustrated as many of you are about distance learning's many shortcomings, especially for our youngest students. This past year has been incredibly hard and we need to get kids back in the classroom. At the same time, families, teachers, and staff all have very different comfort levels around how to do that safely. The best news is that we now have three vaccines approved and the supply is rapidly increasing, meaning things are getting better. But I want to walk through some of the most pressing issues and give you a sense where I am and what I'm hoping to get done.
But first, I want to flag for everyone concerned about education issues, this week's two-day performance oversight hearing on all of the education agencies -- DCPS, OSSE, Deputy Mayor for Education, Public Charter School Board, State Board of Education, Office of the Student Advocate, and Education Ombudsman. Today (ongoing now) is entirely for members of the public, Wednesday we will hear from the government witnesses representing those agencies.
Understanding, and Addressing, Learning Loss
Probably the most discussed topic, and I would guess at times most misunderstood, is the term 'learning loss.' I understand this term to imply that students, by being remote, are not learning at the same rate they would in person in the classroom. This is certainly the case for many students -- especially students who do not have reliable internet service or have other challenges at home that make distance learning difficult, or simply for students for whom paying attention to a screen for long stretches isn't going to work. On the other hand, I've also heard plenty of stories of students who struggled in the classroom finding a lot of success at home. The point is that we're in a very inconsistent moment, which is why I introduced legislation to require OSSE to seek a waiver on PARCC standardized testing for this year. This is not the year to spend weeks of classroom time prepping for and taking standardized tests that don't have anything to do with a student's growth (let alone, how we would consider it standardized when some students are taking it in a classroom and some are taking it at their dinner table...). OSSE has agreed to ask the US Department of Education for the waiver, although we'll have to wait to hear their decision.
So, when I wrestle with the notion of learning loss and how our schools should try to address it in the next few months, I want to be careful I am not being dismissive of the experiences of students who have done well, whose situation might not be the most obvious that comes to mind, even as I think through how to safely return to the classroom. The Council has held several oversight hearings on learning loss with District education leaders. None of these hearings has reassured me that there is a long-term plan in place that's going to work for all families. I have seen far too little authentic community engagement on school reopening -- too often "engagement" means an opportunity to comment on decisions already made rather than a chance for staff and families to be at the table with our education leaders shaping the plans. I share the same frustrations of many parents with the unwillingness to be transparent, to communicate clearly, and to consider and be open to alternatives.
It leads me to want to see our education leaders doing a lot more extensive planning for this summer, as a start. This year is anything but typical. We cannot plan summer school as usual and just hope things work themselves out. We also cannot depend solely on "high dosage tutoring" to make up for more than a year of students missing out on in-person social and emotional learning, art, music, sports, and so much more. However we address learning loss, we must focus on "whole child" solutions that are engaging, joyful, and healing after the trauma and hardship of COVID. We need to be bold in considering how we use the spring and summer to reconnect and recover. And yes, that should include options for outdoor classrooms and programming where possible, partnerships with community-based organizations that already have relationships with students and families for the summer, working on transit and transportation challenges for students who attend schools outside their neighborhood, and ensuring we offer high quality virtual instruction for families not ready to return to school in-person in the fall.
As Co-Chair of the Council's new Special Committee on COVID-19 Pandemic Recovery, I'm going to be holding a hearing this spring on exactly these kinds of concerns. I'll share a date and time with you all when it's been set on the Council's calendar.
Returning to In-Person Learning
As we look to Term 4 of the school year (for DCPS, beginning after Spring Break in April), what should we expect? I think it is reasonable and fair that we ensure all teachers and staff be offered the opportunity to be vaccinated before insisting on a return to in-person teaching. And from what I've heard, we're making a lot of progress getting teachers vaccinated, though until this week, teachers who were planning to return to the classroom but not yet in-person were not on a shortlist to get vaccinated. The Mayor announced this week that all teachers and childcare professionals are eligible to register for a vaccine appointment through the portal beginning next week, which is a big and good development, but I'm concerned we're still not prioritizing them for a shot as soon as possible. If we want more teachers back in the classroom for Term 4, we need to hold another mass vaccination clinic like the earlier one at Dunbar HS for any school staff willing to return in-person.
Looking toward the fall and based on the clinical trials underway, it does not seem likely we will have a pediatric vaccine available by the fall. So it means we will need a robust staff and student testing protocol to make sure we're monitoring any spread of COVID-19 in our schools. Of course, at this point, I need to acknowledge that DCPS and DOH has had some well-noticed failures with asymptomatic testing so far. It is yet another issue raised this week on the Mayor-Council call and something I'll be digging into in the upcoming Performance Oversight Hearings.
It is my hope for DCPS (and all of us collectively) to set a clear and stated goal of returning to in-person learning this fall, with the understanding we might need to still accommodate some students virtually. That's where I've got my sights set and my efforts focused.
2021-22 DCPS School-Level Budget Cuts, Including Social Workers
I want to quickly note I've heard from several DCPS schools that say the first draft of their budgets for next year include staff cuts, including many social worker positions. This is a non-starter when we have so much ground to make-up and we are likely going to have to work around social distancing requirements that demand smaller class sizes and more, not fewer, staff. Schools are going to need to go above and beyond to reconnect with students after over a year away from the classroom and we're going to be asking our social workers (and, really, all our school staff) to do a lot of hard and important work. I am hopeful once DC receives its share of federal coronavirus relief funds, that money can be used to fill holes in the budget and avoid cuts. But it's also about making the right choices with the funds we do have. We can't be a city that funds armed police in schools but not social workers.
Out of School Time Providers Need Support
This pandemic has forced a lot of hard decisions and we've had to provide emergency funding to many different parts of our community. Add one more to the list: providers who offer out of school time services. These are organizations we depend on year-round, including the summer, to keep kids engaged and further the learning done in the classroom. These services, unsurprisingly, have had to freeze and reimagine their programming while we wrestled with COVID-19, and now we need to recognize if we don't throw them a lifeline soon, they may not be here this summer to help.
Expanding Opportunities for Spring Youth Sports
I've heard from a lot of parents who are frustrated by the impractical guidance given by DC Health on outdoor sports for kids. And I raised it on a call this week with the head of DC Health's vaccine efforts. I recognize that we are all still required to make sacrifices, but the guidance around sports, which is basically a limit of 25 total people and no parents, is all but impossible to meet. I asked if there's a way to revisit these guidelines while still meeting our public health goals and DC Health pledged to take another look at the issue. Mayor Bowser announced March 15 as the tentative date for restarting high school athletics, and hopefully there will be more good news to follow soon on easing up other youth sports restrictions.
COVID-19 Vaccine Update
The last few weeks have been frustrating and challenging for many Ward 6 residents who are eligible to make a vaccine appointment. I've written with many of you and I know my team has worked to help as many as possible. But big changes are about to take place. Let me run through a few quick updates:
DC Moving to a Pre-Registration System Beginning Wednesday
Finally, DC will begin registering eligible residents for a vaccine appointment through a pre-registration system instead of the stressful first come, first serve weekly releases. This is a move many of us have been pushing for since mid-January. According to the Mayor, the pre-registration system will be available 24/7 beginning on Wednesday (no more 9am opening bell!) and the call center will be staffed Monday-Friday 8 am to 7 pm and Saturdays 8 am to 4 pm.
A few things to note:
- Perhaps most important, please do not pre-register until you are in an eligible group. If you aren't eligible right now, keep an eye out for the green light from DC Health before you add your name to the waitlist. Especially in these first few weeks with yet another new system, let's try to keep it as simple as possible. Trust me, I'll share in these newsletters and on social media every time a new group is eligible.
- New: This week, all teachers and staff in educational and childcare settings are eligible to pre-register.
- New: This week, all teachers and staff in educational and childcare settings are eligible to pre-register.
- Though the pre-registration will open on Wednesday, there is no rush to be first. Once you are in the system, you will be randomly selected based on prioritization criteria, so it isn't based on who signs up in what order. If everyone who is eligible tries to register all at once, we will see the same overload issues that we experienced the past two weeks. DC Health will contact people using email, phone calls, and text messages - so be sure to provide all the ways to contact you when you sign up.
- You can sign up 24/7 via the web portal: vaccinate.dc.gov
- Or the Call Center: 1-855-363-0333, Monday-Friday 8 am to 7 pm and Saturdays 8 am to 4 pm.
- The first appointments will be sent out on March 12 and first appointments will begin March 15. After this first week, DC Health will contact people (again, they'll use phone calls, text messages, and email to reach you) who can sign up for an appointment on Thursdays, Sundays, and Tuesdays (note: Tuesdays are only to fill unclaimed spots) at 10 am. This should help give some predictability to the process. Once you are pre-registered, be sure to keep an eye on your spam folder.
- Again, I just want to emphasize, if you are not currently eligible, please do not pre-register yet. Let's get this system up and running smoothly and prioritize our neighbors who are a priority due to employment, age, or risk.
- View the full presentation and slides here.
Using Zip Codes to Define Priority Vaccines is Leaving Behind A Lot of Ward 6 Residents
Last week on our weekly call with the Mayor's leadership team, I raised an issue I see in Ward 6 around getting vaccines to people who should be a priority - Black and Brown residents, especially seniors, who have been hit the hardest by the pandemic and live in Ward 6. The city, at the urging of the Council, has taken important steps to ensure the communities most harmed by COVID-19 are receiving extra effort to get the vaccine. That has included identifying priority zip codes that have access to additional appointments. The problem is that zip codes cover a lot of area. Take 20003, as an example. The western half of 20003 has a much higher rate of vaccination than the eastern half of the zip code -- and is whiter and wealthier. The eastern half of 20003, Hill East, has many Black and Brown residents and has some of the lowest vaccination rates in the entire city, including compared with identified priority zip codes. To this point, DC Health has prioritized zip codes in or including Wards 5, 7, and 8 -- all of which I am supportive. But I've also been critical of the zip code approach because it's too large of a geographic area and leaves behind people who are just as deserving and harmed by the pandemic in Ward 6. I met with DC Health officials last week about this and have requested that they either add 20003 as a priority zip code or identifying ways to get more vaccines to residents on the eastern half of 20003 using a more precise tool like Neighborhood Planning areas, which are smaller and allow DC Health to continue its efforts on equitable vaccination.
Related: My team has been working with DC Health's many specialized projects to distribute vaccines in a more targeted way, including at multiple senior public housing sites to get people vaccinated who might not be able to travel or comfortably stay updated on the latest plans. I'm extremely grateful for this level of flexibility, often in partnership with a local hospital, and will continue to do everything our team can to get as many Ward 6 residents vaccinated.
A Few Other Quick Vaccine Updates:
- DC Health Opens Convention Center as a Mass Vaccination Site
- Johnson & Johnson Vaccine Available
- Children ages 16-17 with a qualifying medical condition can sign-up for Children's National Medical Center's vaccine wait list
Update on COVID-19 Relief Bill
While we're waiting for the final bill to pass, there are a few important and hopeful updates to share. First, the bill makes DC whole for the $755 million it was denied during the last major COVID bill. This will do enormous good for our budget as we have had to plug holes with local tax dollars every other state was able to use federal funds for. These are one-time funds, so they don't address the long-term impacts on our budget and needs, but are very welcome and will be put to good use!
It also throws a lifeline to WMATA and other major public transit systems with funding that should help bridge until we can expect ridership to begin increasing. It's an enormous bill with a lot more inside (I'm especially heartened by the number of ways families are supported), but from a big-picture-for-DC standpoint, those are two of the most important items I wanted to share.
Related: You might be wondering how this will affect the discussion around the District's budget? I did an interview with DCist last week on DC's immediate and long-term budget outlook.
Donate to the Southwest DC Ducklings Clothing Drive!
Serve Your City and Ward 6 Mutual Aid are doing a big push this March to get clothes for Southwest DC’s kids, aged infant through 18. We are accepting gently used baby and children's clothing and shoes (clean, no tears) or new underwear and socks, ages infant - 18 years.
Find out or in person at Christ United Methodist Church (900 4th St. SW; courtyard entrance on the south side near the library):
- Monday / Wednesday / Friday from 3-6 pm
- Saturday from 11 am - 2 pm
If you or someone you know needs support, call the Mutual Aid Hotline at 202-683-9962 or email [email protected].
Public Hearings on Nomination for Chief of Police
As you may be aware, the Mayor has nominated a new person to lead the Metropolitan Police Department - Robert J. Contee III. As Chair of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, I will be holding an all-day public hearing on Thursday March 25 from 9:30 am to 6 pm. Understanding there are a lot of voices we should be hearing from in this process, I'm also holding a Town Hall on Facebook open to all DC residents on Thursday, March 18 from 8-10 pm. Information on the process and how you can submit testimony safely here.
Washington Gas Billing Error
DC's Office of the People's Counsel sent out an alert recently that Washington Gas had a billing error where thousands of bills went out with the wrong name on them. I know many households receive mail addressed to previous occupants, so if you don't have autopay for your gas bill, OPC urges you to connect with Washington Gas to make sure your account is current. If you believe that you may have received or even discarded one of these bills, please contact Washington Gas by phone at 703-750-1000 to confirm that your account is up to date. You can also contact the Office of the People’s Counsel with any of your utility concerns at 202-727-3071 or [email protected].
A Few DPW Service Updates
Parking enforcement returning to District schools: DPW Begins Parking Enforcement in District School Zones, Warnings Start March 15; $25 Fines Begin March 22
Commercial vehicle parking enforcement continues. The Department of Public Works (DPW) is resuming parking enforcement for vehicles violating no parking signs in District of Columbia school zones. Parking warning tickets will be issued beginning Monday, March 15 through Friday, March 19, 2021. The warning tickets have a zero dollar fine; however, vehicles that receive a warning ticket may be subject to relocation to a legal parking space with no tow fee. Vehicle owners should call 311 to locate their vehicle.
Tree and Leaf Collection Extended to March 19: Call 311 to schedule a leaf collection, you can put holiday trees where your trash and recycling is normally collected.
Residential Street Sweeping Remains Postponed Indefinitely. Commercial corridor street sweeping remains as long as temperatures are above 40 degrees.
As the weather warms up this week, I know many of us will head outside to enjoy some spring sunshine. Please remember to mask up around others, keep social distancing, and staying safe. As Dr. Fauci has reminded everyone this week, now is not the time to become complacent or ease up on public health measures we know save lives. Keep on taking care of one another, helping neighbors in need, and get the first vaccine shot you can so we can beat this virus!