Charter schools leading the way with in-person instruction

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This op-ed originally appeared in CommonWealth Magazine and has also appeared in MetroWest Daily News and Milford Daily News.

THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC has created unprecedented challenges for countless sectors of society, including our schools. The data are clear on the academic and emotional price remote learning exacts on students. At the same time, many parents aren’t convinced it’s safe to send their children back to school, and teachers share that concern.

Massachusetts charter public schools have lived up to their decades-long record of excellence during the pandemic, developing innovative ways to continue providing high-quality education by maximizing the number of students who can safely learn in person.

Boston Prep, a grade 6-12 charter school in Hyde Park, has implemented a free, weekly COVID-19 testing program for all students and teachers. The school has gone as far as knocking down walls to combine and enlarge classrooms, converting cafeteria space into classrooms, hiring a second school nurse, and expanding its capacity to do a deep clean every night. It has even contracted its own bus service to ensure safe transportation.

Boston Prep has also held family town hall meetings every two weeks since early July, working with parents to create a reopening plan that addresses student, family, and faculty concerns. The school started the year with only about 35 high-needs students on campus. Working with teachers and families, they have since brought back one grade at a time to the grades 6-12 school and expect to have 270 students and 85 teachers on site by early March.

Another charter school success story is KIPP Academies in Boston and Lynn, which, in cooperation with their teachers, have used survey testing to gradually bring students back on campus. Instead of testing everyone, survey testing focuses on representative members of the community to capture demographic and risk factors.

Like Boston Prep, KIPP has combined testing with extensive outreach to families. At first, surveys showed that parents were reluctant to send their children back to school, but the numbers have been changing since KIPP has been able to tailor mitigation efforts and be more specific about which students could return safely based on survey testing data. The schools are currently bringing about a dozen students back to campus each month.

Phoenix Charter Academies in Chelsea, Lawrence, and Springfield, which specialize in educating students who previously disengaged from school, ensured ongoing learning by operating through last summer. The academies also employ a “primary person model” in which each student is paired with a staff member who is responsible for checking in with the student to monitor attendance, academic progress, and social and emotional well-being.

Many charters also raised funds to help families through the crisis. Brooke Charter Schools created the Brooke Community Relief Fund to help its families. In total, 534 donors enabled the school to provide $376,500 in grants to 753 families. Most received $500 grants, but a few families in which children lost a guardian to COVID-19 received $1,000.

Boston Collegiate Charter School (BCCS) launched the COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund in March 2020, which raised over $100,000 by the end of the year to ensure that BCCS families had food and other basic necessities.

In November, the school founded the BCCS Food Pantry. Each week, Boston Collegiate staff prepare bags of healthy food and deliver them to families across the city.

Statewide, traditional public schools have seen enrollment shrink by about 4 percent. At the same time, private school enrollment has nearly doubled and the number of parents choosing to homeschool their children jumped nine-fold.

No one is assigned to charter public schools; they are schools of choice. But parents have noticed the innovative approaches charters have taken to ensure the safety of students and teachers, minimize pandemic-related learning loss, and support students and their families. As traditional public-school enrollment fell, Massachusetts charters have seen a 4 percent increase this year.

For over two decades, Massachusetts charters have earned their reputation for being among the nation’s best public schools. Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, charter schools have reinforced that reputation by collaborating with teachers and families to maximize the number of students who can safely attend school in person and minimize the pandemic’s impact on learning.

Tom Birmingham is a former president of the Massachusetts Senate, co-author of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993, and a senior fellow in education at the Pioneer Institute.