Testimony to the Committee of the Whole — September 21, 2021 Hearing on School Reopening
Thank you Chairman Mendelson and Members of the Committee of the Whole for this opportunity to provide testimony. My name is Jessica Sutter and I am honored to represent Ward 6 on the DC State Board of Education.
You will hear many specific requests from members of the public who testify before you today. I urge you to listen carefully and work to help improve the conditions students, educators and families are currently facing as we wrap up the first month of this most unusual school year.
I have three asks of you in your oversight of and advocacy for our public education system and its reopening:
- Common sense
First, clarity. We have volumes of guidance that is available to our schools and the public. It is thorough. It is based in science. It is too much.
We need clear, simple guidance that all members of school communities can understand, follow, and share.
Who is being tested when?
Who must quarantine?
How will they know?
For how long must they be out of school?
How will quarantined students learn at home?
What kind of COVID test must students take to return?
How do they document their test results?
Where can families find out about cases at their children’s school?
These should be short answers. Clear. Consistent across schools. And easy for anyone to repeat accurately.
They are not. We need to fix that.
Second, common sense. CDC guidelines are rooted in science. But they are not the ceiling of possible safety precautions. And where they seem to cause an average person consternation, maybe we adjust our guidance up to be simple, straightforward & sensible.
As an example, quarantining of siblings. Currently, this is not a rule. And if a parent makes the choice to quarantine all children in their household, additional children are penalized with unexcused absences.
How about we say — if your child is contacted for quarantine, and you keep all children home, you must provide a written excuse note of explanation. All children will learn under the quarantine learning procedures. Straightforward. Commonly understood as sensible.
Let’s work together to keep things simple.
Finally, we must provide choices. I have been a staunch advocate for the return to school buildings throughout the pandemic. Learning in person, with peers, is best for most students most of the time.
I have also been a staunch supporter of school choice for the past 20 years. Parents deserve public education choices that best meet the needs of their children. DC has been a leader in school choice and we should not stop now.
All DC students should have access to optional virtual programming. Even if in-person learning is best for most children most of the time, it is not best if it causes anxiety to some children and some families who fear the potentially dangerous implications of bringing COVID into their homes.
I know that the DME and our LEAs, both DCPS and charter schools, have worked tirelessly to prepare for a safe and equitable return to school buildings, but the reality is that some families do not yet feel safe. We owe it to all children and families to make choices available that help them feel safe and provide equitable access to public education.
Operating in crisis mode is sometimes unavoidable, but rarely in the best interest of our students and families. In the nineteenth month of this pandemic, operating in crisis mode is unacceptable. Clarity, common sense & choices must prevail over crisis mode.
I will close with this: in May, I testified before the Special Committee led by CM Allen & CM Gray. I asked Council members to ensure that school included a more holistic approach to student health and well-being with plenty of time in each school day for students to play, to spend time outdoors, and to have time for movement & mindfulness.
As I watch the reopening this fall, the crisis mode in which our system is operating does not seem to adequately center our children, their health or well-being. It seems to lack more time for play, time outdoors, movement and mindfulness. We owe DC children better.