Op-Ed: We Must Take Stock of Schools’ Response to COVID-19

Harry Lee | June 12, 2020 | Opinion, Education
Educational and policy leaders need to assess which remote learning measures are working, and which aren’t, to better serve students
Harry Lee

School districts across New Jersey are nearing the end of the state’s first foray into remote learning, due to COVID-19 school closures.

As we reach the end of the school year, and begin planning for an upcoming year that looks increasingly uncertain, the state’s educational and policy leaders should take this time to critically evaluate the work that’s been done to date and use these lessons to plan for the future.

At the New Jersey Public Charter Schools Association, that’s exactly what our members are doing. One in six public school students in our former Abbott districts, also known as SDA (Schools Development Authority) districts, attends a public charter school. Compared to traditional school districts, public charter schools have increased flexibility to reimagine their budgets, staffing and curricula to meet the needs of students at this moment.

Survey findings

Fifty-two public charter schools, which together serve more than 36,000 students, completed a survey designed to identify what’s working, what isn’t, and what support they need to better serve New Jersey’s students during the pandemic. Here are the results:

  • Attendance rates are high, even while students are remote. The average daily attendance rate at New Jersey’s public charter schools is 91%. Teachers and school leaders have prioritized having a “line of sight” on their kids, and take regular attendance to make sure they’re giving extra support to students who need it. At Discovery Charter School in Newark, teachers call every child each day, hold parent orientations, and have Zoom office hours. At HoLa Charter School in Hoboken, teachers have set up a student tracker, and each student has a regular one-on-one with their teachers.
  • 94% of public charter schools are providing synchronous, real-time instruction to students at least several times per week. Instead of relying on students to teach themselves, or forcing parents to teach lessons, public charter school teachers are maintaining regular instruction. We believe this, more than perhaps anything else, is the key to holding back the “COVID slide” — which threatens to leave less-privileged students (nearly three-fourths of public charter school students come from low-income backgrounds) further behind through the pandemic.
  • Technology remains a real concern, and an ongoing challenge. Eighty-three percent of public charter schools had a virtual/online learning program up and running by March 17, the day school buildings were closed by Gov. Murphy, and 67% of public charter schools had a 1:1 device program already in place prior to the pandemic. But of the 67%, only 51% were 1:1 for all grade levels. New Jersey’s public charter schools have spent more than $2 million to increase access to technology, but it remains a critical concern. If remote learning is going to continue this fall, state leaders must invest in technology support for students.
  • Public charter teacher and staff roles and schedules have been “flexed” in order to meet the needs of families during COVID-19. One of the great benefits of the public charter model is the increased flexibility provided to schools in how they manage staff to best serve their students. There is an extensive body of research that demonstrates the benefits of “high-dosage” tutoring to improve student achievement. At Learning Community Charter School in Jersey City, any student who wants one-on-one tutoring is provided with either a teacher or New Jersey City University teacher intern throughout the day — both before school begins and into the early evening. At College Achieve Charter School in Asbury Park, teachers work alternate schedules to provide night instruction for those students who are not able to log in during the day. This flexibility has been critical to meeting the needs of students at this moment.

Flexibility, guidance and support

Across New Jersey, we’ve seen examples of innovation and creative adaptation to meet the needs of students. Whether it’s Uncommon Schools in Camden and Newark designing a virtual literacy program, KIPP New Jersey supporting their students’ social/emotional health during the pandemic, or Unity Charter School’s excellent work with students with special needs, public charter schools are using their flexibility and ability to adapt to the moment to serve students better.

As we look toward the next school year, and the possibility that at least part of the year will be held remotely, state leaders should help all public schools do the same, by providing flexibility, guidance and support to meet the many challenges ahead.

Commonsense policy changes such as temporary suspension of bidding laws and flexibility on teacher certification and staffing are incredibly important to relieve the financial pressures on school districts created by the pandemic. Additionally, state leaders should work to find innovative ways to scale up solutions that everyone faces, including getting devices and statewide internet access for our low-income communities and to procure the vast amount of PPE (personal protective equipment) that will be needed to safely educate New Jersey’s 1.4 million students.

By providing flexibility, guidance and support to schools, New Jersey will weather the storm of COVID-19 better than other states, and do right by all of our kids.