Resources > Charter Currents > Charter Currents: CSDC’s Preliminary Thoughts on School Re-opening

Editor’s Note: CSDC is offering these Coronavirus-19 updates for public viewing, to members and non-members alike, and in front of our usual member’s only “paywall” as a service to the larger charter school community. We hope nonmembers will consider joining CSDC.

Sacramento, CA—As the wild and crazy ride that was the 2019-2020 school year winds down, charter school administrators and governing boards need to make difficult decisions regarding the upcoming school year with little or no constructive guidance from state or federal officials and no promised additional flexibility relative to complex and restrictive state and federal laws. With strong prospects for additional waves of COVID-19 infections, schools will need to prepare for a full range of contingencies, varying stakeholder opinions, tightening budgets, and other contingencies. This briefing paper offers CSDC’s initial take on facts and information to add to the complicated and difficult conversations being held by charter school leadership.


No Clear Guidance from the State or Federal Government

At this time, Governor Newsom and State Superintendent of Public Instruction (SPI) Tony Thurmond have largely punted on the re-opening of public schools to local governments, giving very little statewide direction. Aside from California’s Pandemic Roadmap, which identifies schools as a “lower risk workplace” and calls for “modified school programs and childcare [to] re-open,” the Governor has provided little actual guidance and regularly suggests that LEAs, in consultation with county public health officers, will make individual decisions about students and staff returning to school. 

Thurmond, in a recent interview with the LA Times said, “[t]here will not be a common opening, rather school districts will make their own decisions about when they will open.” The article went on to share that “[t]he state Department of Education will keep track of district re-openings as they’re scheduled.” 

At the federal level, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) created a “Schools Decision Tree,” a simplistic document promoting hand washing, face masks, and temperature checks. It largely bypasses the more serious and complicated discussions charter leaders will need to have on the topic of re-opening. Of late, CDC issued a more lengthy document offering a list of topics, including, but not limited to wearing face masks, reinforcing basic hygiene, stepped-up cleaning and disinfecting, implementing various social distancing techniques, etc.

It is likely that state and federal leaders are avoiding tough decision making, not because they don’t have opinions, but because the road LEAs must navigate on their way to re-opening California schools is filled with potholes and hairpin turns. In the area of health and safety, charter schools and other LEAs will have to come to terms with the fact that neither the state nor federal government is likely to offer money for the tools and staffing schools will need to meet even the basic CDC guidelines like the ability “to screen students and employees upon arrival for symptoms and history of exposure” (see CDC’s Schools Decision Tree).

In recent press conferences, both Newsom and Thurmond said that only the federal government can supply the dollars needed to fund LEAs so that they can purchase the additional safety supplies that they’ll need to open schools to California students. In an interview with John King of CNN on May 22, when asked about how California schools could possibly come up with enough PPE for all of the students that attend school, Thurmond noted that the CDE is working closely with the Governor and the Office of Emergency Services “to find ways to make sure that there’s (sic) lots of masks….”

The Governor’s May Revision of the State Budget reduces funding for LEAs by about 10 percent, calls for terminating the flexibility offered by the Governor’s Executive Order (EO N-26-20) and SB 117, and proposes using $4.4 billion of federal COVID-19 aid to provide classroom-based schools with additional but restricted funding to mitigate “learning loss.” While the May Revision offers some options for specified special education staff to utilize technology-based options to serve students and extends the deadline for transitional kindergarten teachers to obtain 24 college units of early childhood education, it offers little-to-no-other flexibility to LEAs. Without flexibility around issues like attendance and student instructional days, LEAs, especially charter schools, will struggle with implementing a program that meets students’ needs.

Large urban school districts such as Los Angeles Unified, San Diego Unified, and Long Beach Unified have pushed back in a letter to Legislators stating that “[r]eopening our campuses will require more, not fewer resources….” CSDC presumes that additional funding is entirely unlikely unless the federal government provides a third round of funding targeted toward schools.


The Pandemic Roadmap is No Guide for Charter Schools

Governor Newsom is allowing California to return to “business as usual” in “stages” of release. All these stages require “self-certification” by a variety of local government officials, thus taking the pressure off of a centralized state release but this also creates a scattershot, patchwork return to educating California’s students.

In some ways, this is a positive for charter schools. In many communities, charter schools have arguably done a better job than their larger district counterparts in pivoting to a serious distance learning model due to their nimble governance structure, access to technology, and creative staff. Some charter schools were already nonclassroom-based, or had a nonclassroom-based “sidecar,” and these organizations were in an excellent position to shift their entire student bodies over to distance learning.

It is clear that just like in re-opening for restaurant dining and recreation, large urban areas like Los Angeles will take a very different approach than smaller, rural areas like Del Norte County.  The governor has called for what he terms “regional variations,” which arguably mean data and information that accounts for population density, illness outbreak, etc.  So it goes, too, it would seem, for LEAs as they plan for re-opening. A plan to accommodate the return to school for LAUSD’s 600,000 student body school system, the second largest in the nation, will look very different from the plan for the return to school for Natomas Charter School.

Both the governor and Thurmond have noted in various settings that “school districts” should consult with their county public health officers for information on disease containment. There is little mention of California’s charter schools – should they also consult with county public health officers and make independent decisions? Or are charter schools expected to take their lead from the county offices of education or school districts who authorize them? CSDC generally suggests that charter school leaders should seek close communication with county health officials, especially if their schools’ facilities, operations, or other factors differ materially from those of more traditional schools.

Given that there is no state-sanctioned rulebook, it appears as though charter schools will largely be on their own and expected to create their own return to school protocols. Acting independently is exactly what charter schools have been doing since March 13 when most closed their doors to on-site education. But particular concerns remain for charter schools, especially given the recent moratorium on nonclassroom-based charters. 

If the flexibility offered by SB 117 and the Governor’s Executive Order expire on July 1, as currently proposed, charter schools may need to navigate a thicket of independent study, nonclassroom-based funding, instructional time, and instructional days laws. Classroom-based charter schools may need to prepare to offer long-term “independent study” for those students who are health compromised or who do not yet feel ready to return to the classroom and/or if a spike in infections compels closure and a return to full distance learning modes. Classroom-based charter schools may also need to seek an amendment to their charter petitions, especially if their current charters prohibit nonclassroom-based instruction. While this topic arguably is not a required charter element, many authorizers are sticklers on the topics of independent study and nonclassroom-based study. Will these charter schools be capable of implementing independent study compliance? Absent extensions of current flexibility, CSDC will offer focused technical support to member schools to help navigate these challenges.

Current nonclassroom-based schools should face fewer compliance hassles but do face some, including the fact that fewer students onsite in learning centers and other venues means fewer facilities expenses to count toward the 80 percent instructional spending funding determination target. Additionally, fiscal chaos, funding deferrals, and spending shifts to address COVID-19 make the required expenditure targets elusive. Additionally, nonclassroom-based charters have largely been shut out of budget funding, including assistance from SB 117, and now from the federal funding as proposed in the May Revise.


The Hokey-Pokey Dance of Re-opening

Remember the song from preschool where you put your right foot in, then take your right foot out, then you shake everything up? That is pretty much the best-case scenario for the 2020-2021 school year. Given the predicted ebb and flow of the pandemic, charter schools and others should be prepared for a full range of close/open/hybrid scenarios, and to possibly run some of these all at the same time.

Nationally, very few classroom-based charter schools are operating within the confines of their existing charter right now. Similarly, there is not a single traditional district school that could re-open without waivers from the state. As charters begin to re-open, charter leaders should be initiating conversations with their authorizers and sketching out various re-opening scenarios.  CSDC has partnered with the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) and is (among many other topics) working on further guidance to address topics for conversations between charter schools and authorizers as school re-opening moves forward. But, prior to the release of this guide in early June, it would be a best practice for charter leaders to begin dialogue with their authorizers on the topic of re-opening.

There is a never-ending list of items to be taken into consideration when considering re-opening, ranging from the purchase of personal protective equipment to health screening to credentialing issues, to name just a very few. In a recent study, the Learning Policy Institute provides insight into the health and safety practices of other countries that have successfully opened K-12 schools after the most extreme COVID-19 restrictions were lifted. This study is useful because it provides some context for what might be needed to successfully re-open schools in California and the rest of the nation.

There are many scenarios to consider such as:

  • Opening elementary and keeping secondary distance learning,
  • Opening elementary and flexing hours of the day to run two different programs each day, keeping class sizes small, and limiting direct person-to-person contact,
  • Opening secondary in a hybrid model flexing days of the week with English, PE, and History taught exclusively online and Math, Science, and some elective courses taught on-site to keep class sizes small and limit direct person-to-person contact,
  • Beginning the school year with each student returning to the teacher they left in the 2019-2020 school year for review and assessment, as well as for socio-emotional stability, and then, after six weeks, moving to their “new” grade and classroom,
  • Keeping secondary students in a “home room” all day and having teachers rotate in and out to minimize student mingling in hallways,
  • Planning for the flu season like Notre Dame and many other small private colleges have done by opening in August and closing for an extended break at Thanksgiving.

The National Charter Schools Institute has created some smaller guides on preparing facilities for re-opening, including a checklist and the above-referenced CDC guidance is yet another source.

Another educational issue to consider is new data from the National Center for Education Statistics that shows that 37% of private school teachers, 29% of traditional public school teachers, and 21% of public charter school teachers are 50 or older. Since 80% of COVID-19 deaths were patients who were 65 years of age or older, this age consideration is an important one to weigh when staffing classroom-based schools. Would these older teachers be better suited to teach in a distance-learning model? What kind of training would be required for teachers not yet adept at online teaching? When would that training occur?

Credentialing issues for secondary courses is also an issue if schools choose to offer a bifurcated system of both site-based and distance learning courses. Would one chemistry teacher be able to split his or her day to do both? Would a second chemistry teacher be hired given the scarcity of credentialed science teachers? Would chemistry even be offered in an online format or would science classes be limited to site-based education only, given the assumption that COVID-19 restrictions will only last for a finite period of time?

As schools of choice, charter schools will need to be especially attentive to the opinions and sensibilities of their stakeholders, especially students and parents. Polling data gathered by the  National Parent Union indicate a wide range of perspectives and that a “one size fits all students” approach may not sit well with a significant number of students and their families who may be uncomfortable with re-opening even with extensive preparations.

Lastly, the issue of the length of teacher and staff workday needs to be addressed. LAUSD set a jaw-dropping precedent when it negotiated with its union and came up with an agreement that states that teachers will work no more than 240 minutes (four hours) per day (inclusive of everything including office hours, student instruction, faculty meetings, and planning) despite getting full salary and benefits. Other major urban districts in California entered into similar agreements. Charter schools, many of which have non-unionized staff, must provide fair working conditions to their own staff, with the understanding that traditional districts have lowered expectations and may continue to do so even as teachers return to work for the 2020-2021 school year.


Where Can Charter School Leaders Find More Help?

The California Department of Education (CDE) has decided to address the pandemic through a series of webinars offered on Facebook and other social media venues. These webinars sometimes offer advice from school districts, and occasionally from charter schools, on topics from distance learning to student success. This is a relatively harmless form of assistance and an appropriately limited role for CDE.  

Charter schools will need to consult with their own communities through a variety of public forums; transparency and communication are vital to ensure a confident return to school in any form. Schools may need to consider offering the split approach of both distance and in-class learning at the same time to accommodate different parent wishes as well as teacher, staff, and student needs. The CDE is not offering webinars on this topic, because, for the most part this is uncharted territory. Charter schools will again be at the forefront of innovation as the public education system is redesigned.

As mentioned above, the NAPCS workgroup document should be complete by the beginning of June and will contain the following items:

  • Suggested Checklists to inform school re-opening planning efforts, including:
    • Governance and Leadership
    • Communications
    • Physical Health and Safety of School Community
    • Student Academics
    • Emotional Health and Safety of School Community
    • Supports for Students and Family
    • Operations
    • Human Resources
    • Considerations Specific to Charter Schools
  • Local and State Level Policy and Regulatory Considerations
  • Templates of Parent Letters
  • Suggested Messages on Efforts on and Key Elements of School Re-opening Plans
  • Additional Guidance for Developing a Social Distancing Plan for a School Campus
  • Other more

These are all topics that should be considered by charter school governance teams and stakeholders over the summer months in order to prepare for re-opening.

It is clear that solutions will be as unique as charter schools and that there is no one-size fits all answer for school re-opening. Charter leaders, however, are known for being innovative and creative and for adapting to the needs of their community. CSDC will continue to bring charter leaders additional information and resources as it is released and will continue to provide support as we navigate this process together.




Posted: 05/28/2020