ERN DC Testimony to Special Committee on COVID-19 Pandemic Recovery & Committee of the Whole Public Oversight Hearing: The District’s Public Education System After the COVID-19 Pandemic

Good morning members and staff of the Special Committee on COVID-19 Pandemic Recovery & Committee of the Whole. Thank you for holding this hearing on the District’s Public Education System after the COVID-19 Pandemic. My name is Jess Giles. I am a Ward 7 resident and the State Director of Education Reform Now DC (ERN DC). ERN
DC is a non-profit organization that fights to ensure our public education system in the District justly and equitably serves all students. I am pleased to provide testimony. Since last March, our families have been grappling with COVID-related challenges from illness, death, job loss, and social isolation. Our educators and school leaders have pushed forward, providing students with virtual and in-person learning. Despite their best efforts, many students’ academic progress — as well as their physical and mental well-being — has faltered.

As we focus on ensuring all of our students have a just and equitable recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is incumbent upon the Mayor and DC Council to meet students and families where they are right now.

We strongly believe in providing all families with an option to resume learning in person five days per week in the fall. Still, there are deep divides within school communities about how and whether to do this. Many Black families are deeply uncomfortable with sending their students back to school in person. 1 Some school staff is hesitant to work in a school environment where they will come in contact with unvaccinated individuals. And there are still disparities in vaccination rates east of the river. Regardless of the type of service delivery, DC has to ensure that healthcare quality for Black and Brown families is at the same high bar as for white families.

  1. Address COVID-19 vaccine access and hesitancy. Wards 7 and 8 have the largest share of DC’s total child population but the lowest percentage of fully vaccinated individuals at 22% and 17%, respectively. 2 We recommend, at
    minimum, establishing school buildings and other community cornerstones as safe, public vaccination sites and partnering with trusted community leaders to increase support for vaccines.
  2. Improve student routine vaccination rates by expanding access to health care. 77% of DCPS students and 76% of public charter students are current on their routine vaccinations, which is below the 93% student vaccination rate before the pandemic and far below the 95 percent that public health officials say is needed for herd immunity. 3 We recommend the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), DC Health, local hospitals, and community health organizations expand access to health clinics for students enrolled in any DCPS or public charter school to help boost immunizations and ensure the medical exemption process for virtual by need policy is easily accessible.
  3. Meet the behavioral health needs of all of our students and families. Before the pandemic, too often, students’ behavioral health needs were unmet. Now, we are concerned that student’s needs are getting worse while being unaddressed. Last July, OSSE released analyses from the 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which provides a distressing pre-pandemic snapshot of the behavioral health of youth in the District. Depressive symptoms were prevalent, with over 10,000 high school students (33%) estimated to be feeling sad or hopeless almost every day for at least two weeks in the past year. 4 An alarming number of children in the District also reported having suicidal ideation and/or attempting suicide, with notably higher rates in children who identify as lesbian, gay, and bisexual. More recently,

Children’s National has seen an uptick of children with self-harm-related injuries even with fewer emergency psychiatry visits this year. We recommend that the Mayor and DC Council invest $6.4 million to expand the school-based mental health program to the remaining 80 public schools that are not receiving these services and restore $4 million to the budget for community behavioral health services.

We strongly believe bold investments are essential for moving forward. But what we do with those bold investments matters just as much.

  1. Provide more opportunities for students to learn. Extended school days and years with highly effective teachers can make a huge difference in student outcomes. It also provides students with more social emotional support. 2018 Florida Study found additional 2-4 months of learning in reading. 5 Effects were particularly strong for students from low-income families.
  2. Use American Rescue Act funding to establish a program for Local Education Agencies (LEAs) to apply for additional funding to support programs and interventions demonstrated as either promising or proven to support the learning and well-being of students considered “at-risk.” At a minimum, this program would help teachers and administrators apply improvement science to implement research effectively and would require financial reporting to ensure dollars supplement, rather than supplant existing spending.
  3. Implement a large-scale tutoring corps for students who have fallen behind academically during the pandemic. Effective high-impact tutoring occurs during the school day, includes a minimum of three sessions per week, provides students with a consistent tutor supported by ongoing oversight and coaching, uses data to inform tutoring sessions, and uses materials aligned with research and state standards. It shows clear, positive results, particularly for the lowest-achieving students: an additional one to two years of math and an additional year of learning in English language arts—on top of what they learned in the classroom—compared to nonparticipants. In a 2017 meta-analysis of 14 types of educational interventions, high-impact tutoring was the most effective at improving student achievement. 6
  4. Improve student literacy. While DC has made the largest reading score gains among urban districts and improved more quickly than the nation as a whole, our fourth-grade reading outcomes remain low. 7 Last fall, we learned the number of kindergartners hitting early literacy targets dropped by 11 percentage points, compared with kindergartners who took the exam at the beginning of the 2019-2020 academic year. First-graders experienced a drop of 12 percentage points, and second-graders saw a decline of seven percentage points. 8 We recommend
    providing educators with professional development training, including individualized coaching that supports educators in deepening knowledge of the five components of scientifically based reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. By advancing this change, we can see a sizeable difference in our students’ literacy rates and reading proficiency. 9

The path to a just and equitable recovery won’t happen overnight, but we can see real change for all our students with these recommendations in place. Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to testify. I am available for any questions.

1 “New Poll Finds DC Parents Overwhelmingly Support Designating Emergency Funds to Limit Learning Loss,” Education Reform Now DC. February 16, 2021. Source:
2 Source:
3 “DC has struggled to get students their routine vaccinations during the pandemic. Will the coronavirus shots be better?” The Washington Post. May 16, 2021. Source:
4 “2019 DC YRBS Data Files,” OSSE. July 8, 2020. Source:
5 “Florida told its low-scoring schools to make their days longer. It helped, new research finds,” Chalkbeat. August 16, 2018. Source:
6 “COVID-19 Response: High Dosage Tutoring to Accelerate Student Learning.” Education Reform Now DC. July 29, 2020. Source:
7 2009 to 2010 Fourth grade reading scores on the NAEP. Source:
8 “In DC, achievement gap widens, early literacy progress declines during pandemic, data show.” October 30, 2020. The Washington Post. Source:
9 “Reading Science in Teacher Preparation Gains Ground; More Aspiring Teachers Are Being Prepared to Teach All Children to Read,” National Council on Teacher Quality. Source: