Chelsea Coffin testimonial on distance learning in the event of a pandemic at DC SBOE

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On March 17, 2021, Chelsea Coffin, director of the Education Policy Initiative, testified before the district State Board of Education (SBOE) regarding distance learning during the pandemic. You can read his testimonial below and download it in PDF format.


Good evening, members of the National Board of Education. 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 forced rapid changes in the way students learn. I’ll first share the main challenges of distance learning from our State of DC Schools report which suggests priorities for recovery.

  1. Two of the challenges went beyond purely academic needs: mental health and the digital divide. On mental health, social isolation, stress and economic hardship[i] caused by the pandemic also likely increased the risk of anxiety and depression among children and youth in DC.[ii] Even in April 2020, 54% of parents who responded to a survey conducted by ConnectED thought their children were somewhat or very anxious.[iii] Access to technology has 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 that internet plans from base were not always suitable for video streaming.[iv]Given these challenges, recovery will depend on taking students’ needs into account holistically. Among other supports, students will need more mental health resources than before. And students will continue to need access to devices, adequate internet connection, and technical support for years to come, as we virtually retain what worked with learning.
  1. The next challenge was to provide services to students who receive additional supports, particularly the 16 percent of students with disabilities and the 13 percent of students who are learning English.[v] Many of the services that students with disabilities need were difficult to provide virtually, and the lack of structure during the day could also be difficult. For some English learners, browsing learning platforms and school communications on English resources presented additional barriers to learning.This means that we need to pay attention to students who faced the greatest challenges during the pandemic and tailor approaches to meet individual needs. Data and community feedback indicate that students designated at risk, English learners and students with disabilities are likely to have greater educational needs than during a regular school year.
  1. The last challenge was communication. Some schools have been proactive and clear in their awareness. However, the messages were confusing and conflicting at times, especially for parents of multiple children attending different schools – and all at a time when parents were being urged to do more than ever.This means a renewed emphasis on family engagement. In some cases, trust levels are very low – many wonder whether to revert to in-person learning, for example. Recovering will mean even more family commitment to rebuilding the community where it has been lost.

The pandemic has also resulted in less class time and a general disruption in learning. The 2019-2020 school year ended three weeks early and live instruction is limited on Wednesdays in most schools. Interrupting years of improving learning outcomes,[vi] Early data from EmpowerK12 shows that DC students likely learned less than they would in a normal school year, and students designated at risk likely had greater disruption of learning than others.

This means that students designated at risk need additional resources as schools recover from the pandemic. The current risk weight is 0.226,[vii] which is lower than the 0.37 initially recommended in the 2014 adequacy study, in part because this estimate did not include excess students or SNAPs.[viii] However, an estimated 56 percent of students designated at risk are eligible for TANF, for example – and do not receive that recommended full risk funding.[ix]

In addition to the learning outcomes, there is some evidence that students designated at risk likely had a more difficult year.

  • An estimated 58 percent of students designated at risk live in wards 7 and 8,[x] and 66 percent had broadband access in these neighborhoods; 64% had access to a computer, laptop or tablet before the pandemic.[xi]
  • In addition, at least 5,000 students identified as at risk experienced homelessness during the 2019-2020 school year.[xii] This means they were likely matched with another family under crowded conditions for distance learning, or it may have been difficult to access a stable internet source at a homeless shelter. .
  • Regarding the older population, high school students in our focus groups reported low levels of motivation, and an EmpowerK12 wellness study found that high school students reported the lowest levels of confidence during this time.[xiii]

Finally, the drop in preschool enrollment, particularly in schools serving the highest percentages of students designated at risk, will have repercussions on learning in the years to come. Schools serving more than 43 percent (the city average) of students designated at risk had an average of 13 fewer students in preschool compared to an average of 3 fewer students in other schools. Twenty schools serving more than 43 percent of students designated at risk have lost at least 20 students (an entire class).

Over the past year, home and learning have been more closely linked than ever for DC public school students, often resulting in a greater disparity in access to learning opportunities. In addition to correcting this by providing resources as a city, we also need to rename the funding category “at risk” and think about students with other needs that should be included.

Featured photo: Aimée Custis (The source)


[i] 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/

[ii] 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/

[iii] 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

[iv] 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

[v] 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)

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

[vii] Government of the District of Columbia. Approved budget and financial plan for fiscal year 2021: Volume 3, Agency budget chapters – Part III. Available at: https://cfo.dc.gov/page/annual-operating-budget-and-capital-plan

[viii] Office of the Deputy Mayor in charge of education. 2014. Cost of Student Achievement: DC Education Adequacy Study Report. Available at: https://dme.dc.gov/page/dc-education-adequacy-study

[ix] Office of the State Superintendent of Education. 2020. OSSE FY19 Performance Oversight Answers, Question 5. Available at: https://osse.dc.gov/page/fy19-performance-oversight-questions

[x] Office of the Deputy Mayor in charge of education. 2021. EdScape Beta: Where do students who are identified as at risk of school failure live? Available at: https://edscape.dc.gov/page/pop-and-students-where-students-at-risk-live

[xi] United States Census Bureau. 2021. Public Use Microdata Sample: Five-Year Estimates from the US Community Survey, 2015-2019. Available at: data.census.gov

[xii] Office of the State Superintendent of Education. 2020. OSSE FY19 Performance Oversight Answers, Question 5. Available at: https://osse.dc.gov/page/fy19-performance-oversight-questions

[xiii] EmpowerK12. 2020. “Impact of COVID-19 on Student Well-Being. »Available at: https://www.empowerk12.org/research-source/covid-student-wellbeing

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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