Testimony from Chelsea Coffin regarding education agencies at the DC Council watchdog hearing

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On March 9, 2021, Chelsea Coffin, Director of the Education Policy Initiative, testified before the DC Board Committee of the Whole at the performance monitoring hearing of DCPS, OSSE, DME, DC PCSB, of the SBOE, the OSA and the Education Ombudsman. You can read his testimonial below and download it in PDF format.


Good morning, Mr. Chairman Mendelson and members of the Committee of the Whole. My name is Chelsea Coffin and I am the Director of the Education Policy Initiative at the DC Policy Center, where our educational research focuses on how schools connect to a larger dynamic in the District of Columbia.

The pandemic has put the district’s public schools to an unprecedented stress test and imposed rapid changes on the way students learn in public schools. For our State of DC Schools report which will be released next week, we took stock of surveys, reports and meetings from others, as well as focus groups held to identify common student experiences, parents, teachers and adult learners. Four major challenges emerged, especially in spring 2020:

  • The first major challenge was mental health. Social isolation, stress and economic hardship[1] caused by the pandemic also likely increases the risk of anxiety and depression in children and youth in DC.[2] Even before the pandemic, 44% of children and youth under the age of 17 in the district had been exposed to at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE).[3]
  • The second major challenge was the digital divide. Before the pandemic, about 13% of DC residents did not have access to a computer or tablet in their homes, and 24% of DC children did not have access to high-speed internet.[4] Access improved, but a September 2020 PAVE family survey found that 9% of those surveyed still did not have a device and 6% did not have internet – and basic internet plans didn’t. were not always suitable for video streaming.[5]
  • The third key challenge was to provide services to the 16 percent of students with disabilities and the 13 percent of students learning English.[6] Many of the services that students with disabilities need are difficult to provide virtually. For some English learners, navigating learning platforms and school communications on English resources (for students or parents learning the language) can be a challenge.
  • The fourth key challenge was communication. Some schools have been proactive and clear in communication, while others have reportedly sent conflicting messages or changed courses too frequently. This was particularly confusing for the parents of several children attending different schools.

In addition to general well-being, these challenges had implications for learning. Interrupting years of improving learning outcomes,[7] the pandemic has meant less class time in DC over the past two school years. In addition to virtual learning for most students, the 2019-2020 school year ended three weeks early and teaching is limited on Wednesdays in most schools. Early data from EmpowerK12 shows DC students likely learned less than they would in a normal school year – and at-risk students likely had greater learning disruption than the other students.

From our commitment to State of DC Schools, three questions stand out as essential to ask DC’s public schools in preparation for recovery. These are questions about confidence, adaptability and a holistic approach.

  1. First of all, how do you restore confidence? Communication has been difficult for some over the past year at a time when parents have been urged to do more than ever before, and in some cases trust levels are very low – many are wondering whether to go back to the in-person learning next year. Recovering will mean even more family commitment to build a community where it has been lost.
  2. Second, how do we tailor approaches to different needs? We know this year has been more difficult for some students than for others. Data and community feedback indicate that students designated at risk, English learners and students with disabilities will likely have greater educational needs than a regular school year, but each experience has been unique and will require a personalized approach. to get back on track – including providing options (in-person and virtual) that work for students and their families.
  3. Third, how do we meet holistic needs? Students will need more mental health supports than ever before when they return to school. Even in early April 2020, 54% of parents who responded to a survey conducted by ConnectED thought their children were somewhat or very anxious.[8]

Over the past year, home and learning have been more closely linked than ever for DC public school students, leaving some with greater access to learning opportunities. We must reflect on this year and allow all students, schools and teachers to emerge from this crisis stronger than before.

Featured photo: Ted Eytan (The source)


[1] Sayin Taylor, Y. 2020. “Pandemic-induced unemployment has hit Hispanic, Latino and youth workers in the district most severely.” DC Policy Center. Available at: https://www.dcpolicycenter.org/publications/hispanic-latino-pandemic-unemployment/

[2] Loades, ME, Chatburn, E., Higson-Sweeney, N., Reynolds, S., Shafran, R., Brigden, A., Linney, C., McManus, MN, Borwick, C. and Crawley, E. 2020 . “Rapid Systematic Review: The Impact of Social Isolation and Loneliness on Child and Adolescent Mental Health in the Context of COVID-19.” Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7267797/

[3] United States Census Bureau. 2018. “NSCH 2018 Data Release”. Available at: https://www.census.gov/data/datasets/2018/demo/nsch/nsch2018.html

[4] United States Census Bureau. 2019. Public use microdata from the US community survey, 2014-2018. Available at: data.census.gov

[5] PAVE DC. September 2020. “PAVE Coffee Chat: Back-to-school survey. »Available at: https://www.dropbox.com/s/108939nqds8pohd/Back%20to%20 School% 20Survey% 20Results_Final.pdf? dl = 0

[6] Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education (DME). 2020. “Enrollment in Public Schools by Race and Ethnicity”. Available at: edscape.dc.gov (school year 2020-21 to come)

[7] DC Policy Center. 2020. State of DC Schools, 2018-19. Available at: https://www.dcpolicycenter.org/publications/state-dc-schools-2018-19/

[8] ConnectED is a local organization that connects families to their children’s educational journey, choosing and enrolling in schools, selecting summer programs and providing other supports to parents. For more information on the survey, please visit: http://dcschoolreform.org/sites/default/files/ConnectED%20Parent%20Survey%20Results_1.pdf

DC Policy Center Fellows are freelance writers and we welcome the expression of a variety of perspectives. The views of our fellows, published here or elsewhere, do not reflect the views of the DC Policy Center.


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