When the coronavirus pushed schools to close earlier this year, few knew what to expect moving forward. Some schools that already used online or hybrid models were able to function without skipping a beat. But the vast majority scrambled to find solutions that work for students, teachers, and families. We are starting a new school year as most of the country finds it difficult to use some forms of online education. But we have some results from the experiences in the spring that can guide us forward.
With our partners at Public Impact, we have published our research report which examines education plans of more than 350 charter schools around the country to find out how they responded to the shift to remote learning this spring. Of the charter schools we examined, 325 are not managed by a larger charter organization. They are also independent of the districts so they have the freedom, within the limits of the public health mandates, to decide how to continue to assist students online in their plans.
We found that charter schools tended to excel in using flexibility to shift to online learning and maintain connections with students and families. When compared with districts, charter schools on average had stronger expectations of teachers to provide direct instruction and check in with students and families. In fact, 74 percent of the charter schools wanted teachers to run direct instruction, compared with 47 percent of districts. Moreover, 38 percent of the charter schools expected to have a form of simultaneous learning, compared with 22 percent of districts.
Charter schools also had to adapt as their plans face reality. For instance, a charter school in Georgia asked families to send feedback in the virtual town hall after the first week of online learning. Indeed, there was a clear message that families were overwhelmed. The charter school prioritized daily lesson plans so parents could focus each day on the activities with the greatest impacts. They finally switched to four days with instruction each week, leaving Monday free for virtual field trips and mental health, including key group therapy sessions led by staff counselors.
Most schools in this crisis have found that they are meeting needs that go well beyond academics, with physical and mental health arising as urgent priorities, especially for communities where many families are affected by the financial downturn. For one charter school in the District of Columbia, which serves young kids and adult learners, that portion of families living with no access to food, clothing, and secure housing rose from 4 percent before the coronavirus to 40 percent over a matter of weeks.
The student services team at the school responded to the need by linking information on its website, including details for new eviction protections, information on which area food banks were open, along with key updates on other supports. The school also doubled down on the partnership with a local social services center to provide therapy for families.
To ensure students continue learning, schools must expect teachers to engage with students through direct instruction and check ins, provide education supports to teachers, mandate the use of curricula with high standards, ensure all students have access to the internet, and present modifications to services for those students with disabilities.
State and federal officials must take action. Funding for technology is now an urgent priority. Technology is as critical to the infrastructure of schools as the buildings. The government, private sector, and philanthropists have to ensure that all students can connect to the internet and complete their work online. As our country spends trillions of dollars to battle the effects of the coronavirus, it would be a devastating mistake to stop investments in technology, which will pay dividends for decades to come.
We must deliver education effectively, regardless of where students are learning from. Researchers should gather more robust data this fall over how public schools, both district and charter, are assisting students. For now, it is apparent that limited access to the internet is the major barrier preventing some students from learning. Our most vulnerable students cannot afford for policymakers to write off one more school year. Let us make access to technology for students a national priority and include funding for all public schools in the next bill for federal relief.
Nina Rees is president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.