Good afternoon, Chairman Mendelson and members of the Committee of the Whole. Thank you for the opportunity to address the Council today. My name is Ryllie Danylko. I am a policy analyst at DC Action, home of the DC Out-of-School Time Coalition. I am testifying today on behalf of the coalition’s more than 50 OST providers to share some of their experiences and concerns that have arisen in the first few weeks of the school year.
Many organizations that provide afterschool programs in DCPS schools say students are eager to get back to the activities they love and have missed out on for the past year, while parents have mixed feelings about sending their children back into the classroom and afterschool activities, because of the continued threat of the Delta variant. Covid-19 case numbers continue to climb and spread through schools, reaching nearly 300 school-associated cases in just the first 13 days of school, according to DC government data. It’s still important that we work together to practice effective safety measures and ensure that everyone gets vaccinated. We believe the Mayor’s recent mandate is an important step in that direction and as an organization, are fully supportive of it. We also appreciate the hard work of the DCPS Office of Partnerships in helping to prepare schools and OST programs for the return to in-person learning.
Many working parents continue to rely on afterschool programs as a safe, nurturing place for their children between the end of the school day and the end of the work day. OST programs have been hard at work over the summer creating plans for safe in-person programming, as well as backup plans in case the pandemic makes in-person activities impossible. Part of this planning has involved recruiting staff who are qualified and passionate about working with youth. Unfortunately, for programs that provide afterschool programs in partnership with DCPS schools, these efforts have been hampered by ongoing delays in the suitability screening process that all staff must complete before beginning to work with students.
Program directors have shared that when some staff members complete the necessary steps in the screening process, they do not receive a response about their results in a timely manner. This is particularly common with the drug testing and Child Protection Registry requirements. While DCPS reports that drug testing has an expected turnaround time of 10-15 days and the Child Protection Registry Screening has an expected turnaround time of 3-5 days, some staff have waited longer – from several weeks up to two months – to receive their clearances. Our coalition members shared that the frustrations of the delays themselves are compounded by the lack of a feedback loop, meaning that if mistakes are made at any step, DCPS’s system does not alert the applicant until the applicant or employer inquires. When the mistake is revealed and corrected, this might restart the clock. The current process places the administrative burden on the programs to follow up on each applicant’s case, which is especially difficult for smaller organizations that may not have the staff capacity to dedicate to the follow-up.
These widespread delays have had several negative impacts on the ability of OST programs to serve DCPS students, in some cases forcing programs to delay the start dates of their programming or reduce the number of students they serve. Some new OST employees who are fully qualified and eager to begin working with youth made the decision to exit the hiring process because they were unable to wait weeks or months to begin earning needed income. Following are some real examples from coalition members:
At Afterschool All-Stars, which provides free, comprehensive afterschool programming in DCPS schools, 10 of its 20 staff members have been caught up in these delays, with some staff waiting more than 8 weeks to hear back from the school district. As a result, Afterschool All-Stars was forced to delay the start of its program by two weeks in some cases, and four weeks in others. The organization had to redesign its hiring matrix to include more school teachers and paraprofessionals, and sought out more program partners – who are usually much more expensive because they do specialized programming—to fill vacancies.
The DC Youth Orchestra was forced to indefinitely postpone a free beginner orchestra program that would have provided introductory music lessons to nearly 200 DCPS students, because 19 staff members were still awaiting their clearances. Kid Power, which provides free academic enrichment and mentoring to youth, had six staff members awaiting clearances as of yesterday, and had to cut down on the number of students served at some school locations, and create waitlists at others. To keep up with the demand for programs, Kid Power has been paying emergency incentives to DCPS teachers to staff afterschool programs, a move that put the organization over budget and unable to afford to maintain this staffing model long-term. Kid Power has had to combine classrooms on occasion due to a lack of staff, which isn’t ideal under COVID circumstances.
As these examples show, clearance delays come with major financial costs to programs, lost income for staff members, and many students and parents without the afterschool activities they rely on. At a time when young people need social and emotional support from trusted adults and mentors, and when the local OST sector is seeing an infusion of $10.1 million in federal funding from the American Rescue Plan, it’s important that the OST sector can work together with DCPS teachers, principals, and administrators to maximize this investment and ensure that students feel supported, confident, and prepared as they return to in-person learning.
We know that administrators in DCPS are aware of the issue and are exploring solutions to speed up the process. We also know that Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, through her role as chairperson of the Committee on Human Services, is working to address the delays related to the Child Protection Registry Screening by assigning additional staff members to help process the applications.
It is in the best interests of DCPS, OST programs, and our students and families, that we ensure a better system is in place to screen OST staff. The system must enable tracking for applicants and provide real-time feedback that an application is fully complete or missing essential components that could hold up the process. DCPS should prioritize accelerating the application review process and upgrading the submission system to facilitate OST programs’ vital partnerships with DC schools.
As we know, the pandemic has exacerbated existing gaps in opportunities and outcomes for students, especially those who are Black or brown, and created new stressors for everyone. OST partners share the goal of DCPS leaders and educators to welcome students back to school for joyful and immersive learning experiences, while also addressing inequities in education.
The OST Coalition looks forward to continuing to work with the DCPS Office of Partnerships to ensure successful partnerships between schools and OST partners. We look forward to meeting with Chancellor Ferebee later this year to discuss how OST partners can best help principals and classroom teachers reach the goals they share with the OST sector: helping all students reach their full potential.