Out-of-School-Time Programs Deserve a Seat at the Table
Dear Deputy Mayor Kihn,
We write to you out of concern that the voices of educators, families, and youth are being excluded from the current discussion about how and when to safely reopen schools. In particular, we write on behalf of DC’s out-of-school time (OST) programs to ask that you immediately and directly engage the OST community in this process. We need to build and maintain trust in DCPS leaders in order to meet the full range of needs of students and families while prioritizing health and safety without exacerbating education inequities.
The OST community is broad and diverse, serving and supporting students across the District and employing educators who work tirelessly to ensure that all of our young people succeed. According to FY2019 numbers, 21st Century Community Learning Centers in the District served 9,078 young people -- 5,087 through DCPS. In FY2020, Learn 24 awarded 103 grants to programs that served 7,338 young people during the school year and 9,107 during the summer. Yet, voices of OST leaders who serve thousands of students daily have not been represented, or even consulted, in how and when schools should reopen.
Yesterday, Chancellor Ferebee responded to a parent question about the role of OST programs in the reopening by saying, “Currently there is no plan to provide afterschool programming at this time. Introducing afterschool programming would introduce a new set of cohorting that is not recommended at this point by the Department of Health.” We believe this decision--which is not evidence-based--conflicts with the District’s principles to ensure an equitable education for all students.
Since the pandemic shut school doors, DCPS has inexplicably failed to include its OST partners in the planning and decision-making process around distance learning and school reopening. Yet, families have continued to turn to their trusted OST programs for academic, social- emotional, and childcare support. We have heard directly from many families who have shared statements like “[our OST program] is the only one that helps my daughter with her anxiety,” and “I am truly grateful for the virtual sessions [for] supporting my kids, [which have] put me at ease...I cannot picture our life during the pandemic without you and you all.”
Although school buildings have remained closed, OST programs have stayed open - serving thousands of children virtually and in person; providing high-quality arts, athletics, health, and academic enrichment; maintaining critical mentor-mentee relationships; bolstering students’ mental health; and helping keep students feeling safe, supported, connected, and hopeful.
Families and youth are asking OST programs for more programming right now because they value and understand the educational and emotional value of OST programs, even when they are virtual. Active screen time (e.g. practicing soccer with your coach and team over Microsoft Teams or creating a painting guided by a trained arts educator or learning about life from an adult mentor -- in short, the type of distance learning programming high-quality OST programs provide) is quite different from passive screen time (e.g. watching TV or scrolling through social media) and research shows active screen time has significant physical and cognitive benefits. We’ve also heard from school principals this fall who want trusted OST programs to provide in-person outdoors socially-distanced programming before and after school hours, because they are confident such programs will positively impact students’ classroom attendance and academic engagement.
At a time when every resource is needed to engage and support our students equitably, DCPS’s lack of authentic engagement with the OST community, which plays a critical role in educating and supporting our youth, constitutes a misuse of public and private funding, resources, and expertise. More importantly, it puts our students, particularly Black and brown students, even further at risk.
Instead of excluding the OST community from this discussion, we urge deeper engagement for the following reasons:
- Communication. We are all hoping for a safe and healthy road ahead, but the future is uncertain. Just as at the start of the pandemic, few predicted that we would be where we are today. We do not know where we will be next year, or even during the peak of flu season this year. Because of this, we believe it is vital that the OST community and District education leaders are in more formal and regular discussion. We believe everyone who is part of our education system, including out-of-school time programs, families, and students deserve a seat at the table so we can make these decisions together. These must be bottom-up solutions, not top-down decisions.
- Inclusive Decision Making: The Department of Health has not engaged OST programs in any discussions about reopening schools. So it is particularly disconcerting to learn that DCPS appears to be basing its decision not to allow in-person OST programs on DC Health’s assumption that doing so would introduce a new set of cohorting. There is no evidentiary basis for that assumption. Other jurisdictions have worked with OST programs to operate in-person afterschool programs for children already attending school in person. Our local OST community is open to working with DC Health and school leaders to find solutions that work for everyone involved, but has never been invited into the room to have them. By contrast, a decision to eliminate OST programs completely, without consultation, has wide-ranging implications for children, for families, and for the long-term viability of our OST sector. We must find a way to work together to promote the health and safety for everyone, and protect a sector that plays a critical role in reducing education inequities in the District.
- Resources and coordination. Budgets are moral documents, and it matters a great deal, especially during difficult moments like this, where we put our resources. We know that the pandemic has not affected all communities the same, with Black and Latinx families feeling the brunt of the impact. It is almost certain that the last half year and the months ahead will exacerbate the education divide. OST programs have proven they play an important role in helping to close that gap. Now is not the time to cut OST partners out of broader education strategies.
- Health and Safety: We believe in putting the health and safety of all parties first, and until in-person learning resumes for all, the District will have to take even greater strides towards supporting equitable virtual learning to prevent inequities in our education system from worsening. As noted above, OST programs can play a vital role in this effort, and we want to work with your office to find the resources everyone needs to succeed.
We appreciate the challenges and complexities of weighing the needs of educators, families, students, and other stakeholders, including out-of-school-time program programs and school support staff, as the District works to chart the best course through these troubled waters. These are not easy times, and the intersection of education, economic, and health concerns only add to the anxiety and stress that many are feeling.
We want to work together to ensure everyone has a seat at the table, and a say in the path forward. DC Action for Children and the DC Out-of-School Time Coalition request a meeting with you at your earliest opportunity to discuss these matters.
DC Action for Children, on behalf of the DC Out-of-School Time Coalition