The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted global education systems, including charter schools in the United States.
This article will look at charter schools’ challenges and opportunities during the pandemic and how they adapted and responded to changing circumstances.
Charter schools, among other school types, have faced unique challenges as they navigate an uncertain landscape characterized by an abrupt transition to remote learning, scarce resources, and declining enrollment.
On the other hand, the pandemic has provided opportunities for innovation, increased parent engagement, and the formation of new partnerships.
On Remote Learning
The sudden transition to remote learning during the pandemic has been one of the biggest challenges for charter schools. As a result, many charter schools need more funding and technological infrastructure to give students the education they would have in a traditional classroom.
Remote learning was a reality for most students, whether they attended public or private schools.
The 2020–21 school year survey by the National Center for Education Statistics confirms earlier findings that many teachers felt largely isolated as they attempted to respond to COVID-19. For example, only 66% of respondents who taught in charter schools “felt” they had the tools and support they needed to do their jobs well.
Due to a lack of access to technological devices and steady, dependable internet, only 10% of charter school principals were able to respond positively when asked if their students could remotely access real-time interactions with their teachers.
Additional significant findings were reported regarding the challenge of keeping students’ attention during online instruction. The teachers also encountered difficulties gauging student interest and comprehending the lessons.
On Learning Loss
Remote learning carries the risk of learning loss, especially for students from disadvantaged backgrounds who may lack access to necessary technology or support at home.
With the transition and all of the necessary adjustments, it was unavoidable for most students to shorten their school days. Also, during the early months of the pandemic, The Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) discovered that many states did not even require attendance tracking.
With the abrupt physical closure of schools and the transition to distance learning, teachers and students were forced to adapt to new practices and methods. Such disruptive changes are likely to impact learning time even in a planned transition. COVID-related changes were extremely rapid and significantly impacted schools’ ability to complete the typical curriculum for the year. The combination of less material taught and new formats for presenting material greatly affected the amount of learning time completed by students.
On Enrollment Decline
Because of the pandemic, the government’s immediate response was to keep everyone safe inside their own homes and away from one another to prevent the disease from spreading. Schools had been closed, at least temporarily, to keep everyone safe from illness. As a result, it was expected that student enrollment would drop significantly.
However, the figures were far lower than expected. What was anticipated to be a challenge turned out to be an opportunity for charter schools.
According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) report, which covers the school years 2019-20 to 2020-21 and includes data from 41 states with charter schools, charter school enrollment increased by 7%, or nearly 240,000 students, while public school enrollment fell by 3.5%, or almost 1.5 million students nationwide.
After a spike in the first year of the pandemic, charter school enrollment remained stable in the 2021-22 school year, indicating only a 0.04% or 1,436 student loss.
On Funding Cuts
With enrollment expected to decline due to the pandemic, it was also expected that budget cuts would impact charter schools and decrease funding from the government and philanthropic organizations, limiting their ability to provide adequate support for students and staff.
Charter schools receive funding from the district and the state based on the number of students enrolled. Charter schools are funded at 61 percent of their district counterparts nationwide, averaging $6,585 per pupil compared to $10,771 per pupil at traditional district public schools.
In a USA Today article, Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said, “Funding is always difficult to secure, but it was even more difficult during the pandemic.”
However, instead of budget cuts, America’s charter schools received at least $1 billion during the pandemic, with over 1,000 charter schools eligible for forgivable loans of up to $10 million after Congress established the Paycheck Protection Program in March 2020.
Some states, such as Indiana and Connecticut, also increased state funding for charter schools per pupil.
Because of the pandemic, charter schools have been encouraged to be creative and innovative in their educational approach, including using new technology and alternative learning models. Many charter schools have also implemented innovative programs to ensure students receive the support they require, such as summer learning initiatives and small group instruction.
According to new federal data, 82% of charter schools have shifted to remote learning, which is higher than the rate for public and private schools.
From March 2020 to May 2020, student access to devices and the internet increased from 60% to more than 90%. By March 2021, almost all students had access to both.
Based on Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) assessment, most charter schools surveyed demonstrated resilience and creativity in responding to the physical and social challenges posed by COVID. They reacted strongly and swiftly to the remote instruction. Communication has been prioritized. They assessed technology needs for students and teachers and mobilized resources and contacts to distribute technology and subsidize internet access. They determined which aspects of their standard curriculum and instruction were critical to students maintaining and improving their knowledge and then adjusted lesson plans accordingly. Charter school leaders increased contact with classroom teachers, reviewed lesson plans and instructional materials, and observed teacher-student interactions. Coaching and formal professional development helped educators improve their ability to provide effective remote instruction.
On Parent Engagement
Parents have become more involved in their children’s education as students learn from home, creating opportunities for increased collaboration between families and schools.
According to the NAPCS report, the enrollment shift away from traditional public schools is due to a “parent revolution,” and parents are looking for options for their children that better meet the needs of their families. The report also indicated that these enrollment trends appear to be a “new normal” rather than a temporary reaction to turbulent times.
Another study conducted by Boston University and the University of Michigan discovered that the ongoing disruptions and changing restrictions “may have significantly altered parents’ perceptions of the quality of schooling their children may experience.”
Charter schools are more adaptable to changing conditions and can quickly implement new strategies and programs to meet the needs of students and families.
For example, 97% of charter schools were able to provide teachers with remote learning professional development, compared to less than half of district schools. While schools were planning re-openings, they recognized the importance of delivering high-quality remote learning when needed.
Charter schools are given considerable leeway in how they operate. Even in “normal” times, they have more say over program design and resource allocation than peers in the district. In exchange, they must direct their resources in ways that produce positive student outcomes or face closure. Under these circumstances, their reaction to COVID is a natural experiment in how leaders and educators embrace the flexibility granted to them to keep the school open and students learning.
On New Partnerships
The pandemic has allowed charter schools to work with neighborhood businesses and organizations to support their students and families.
Nearly every school acknowledged the change in the parental roles and contacted the new co-educators to connect, organize, and support them. As students’ needs changed, charter school teams widened their support for families, realizing that isolation, infections, and loss affected many communities.
Despite how challenging the change and the new requirements were for everyone involved, many school leaders said the experience strengthened their ties to and the resilience of their school communities.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on US charter schools. While the shift to online learning and declining enrollment have presented challenges, charter schools have responded with creativity and innovation.
Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, charter schools have continued to provide quality education to their students by implementing technology, increasing parent engagement, and forming partnerships with local organizations and businesses.
The pandemic has also highlighted the importance of adaptability and flexibility in education and new opportunities for charter schools to serve their communities in innovative and effective ways.
As the pandemic’s effects fade, charter schools must remain at the forefront of education by finding new ways to support and empower their students and families.
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