Testimony to the Council of DC on improving school health and safety in a pandemic

My name is Alexander Howard: I’m a good governance advocate and digital democracy analyst. Today, I’m testifying as a DC Public Schools parent: my daughter is a third grader. Thank you for the opportunity to testify again before the council — and for your service and attention to these issues, which I know affects you and your families and neighbors.

Let’s step back.

Imagine if there were a dire airborne virus that left kids and adults sick and incapacitated. Parents and kids were afraid, but there was no Internet to work from home or do school learning.

With no virtual option, schools had to adapt differently to tuberculosis & the flu pandemic of 1918: kids moved to ferries, parks, roofs, & were bundled into classrooms with windows wide open to the cold with radiators.

How did a generation a century ago do so much more with so much less? How could we do the same, or better?

Let’s imagine DC classrooms had been full of bad air from gas or mold or fire in July. Would the council have stayed in recess in August and hoped DC government would fix it?

What would we as a city and community have done?

Here are 8 ideas for the days and months ahead: please adopt, adapt, improvise, & overcome!

1. Call on the DC National Guard to build field hospitals, but for learning. They have tents, strength, and motivation: the guard are our neighbors. Treat it like a barn raising for every school in national parks, & invite parents. If safety is an issue for outdoor field schools, keep the Guard on site, or bring park rangers & DC police in to watch over our kids as they do construction sites & national monuments. Don’t forget sanitation: DCDPW will have to support this frequently.

2. Engage the White House & Department of Education to make hybrid DC schools a model for the nation by using national parks and gardens. Presidential praise without public school progress isn’t moral. Use their praise for DCPS for access to federal spaces, support, and cover from rain & cold: winter is coming.

3. Issue all teachers and staff special permits for dedicated street parking, & accelerate permitting for parking lots, playgrounds, & roofs. Tap into libraries, grounds too!

4. Close side streets and sidewalks to expand outdoor space! How can restaurants possibly be higher priorities while our kids eat unmasked indoors? Other cities have done this. Why not DC? Ask for help from parents to supervise & take kids for walks. We will help if it means safer schools! Surge teams for permitting! No excuses: this could & should all have been in place in fall of 2020.

5. Over 1000 kids are quarantined as we speak. Support remote learning! Why wasn’t there virtual learning set to scale for kids in quarantine or sickened to begin! Why aren’t we ready to do this for sick days? Everyone had to know this would happen. Dedicate capacity to support them: devices, MiFi cards, paramedics to help & visit to make sure students have what they need.

6. Adopt test to stay! Rapid, on-site tests administered by school nurses should be a norm.

7. Hard vaccine mandate: get all staff & teachers vaccinated ASAP & disclose percentage. Hold DCPS accountable to keep our kids & communities safe.

8. What YOU can do as a council is mandate (and enforce) transparency, & hold agencies & the Mayor accountable for fixing infrastructure! Do performance issues suggest it’s time to make DC schools much more independent from the Mayor’s office?

There should be a DC pandemic dashboard for schools, full of open data on testing, quarantine, cases, outdoor space & HEPA filter status. Build it with OCTO, Code for DC & the open government advisory committee. Make that Salesforce data on work orders open and put it online! Hold weekly press conferences with the chancellor updating us all on status of outstanding issues. Make social media responsive, not broadcast press releases. Stop spending money to advertise propaganda to frustrated parents & ignoring our replies: work with us.

What’s missing is not resources or ideas in September 2021: it’s leadership, action, transparency, and accountability. Higher risk environments persist because we allow it.

Let’s fix it, together, & keep everyone as safe & healthy as possible.

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