How SUNY Charter Schools Responded to COVID-19

The closure of school facilities and the transition to remote instruction in the wake of COVID-19 represented a fundamental reimagining of teaching and learning for schools, both here in New York and nationally. Among the diverse array of independent, community based, small scale replicators, and large networks that comprise the more than 200 authorized charter schools in the SUNY portfolio, the unique approaches to navigating the disruption offer critical insights as administrators multiple scenario plan for a fall return. 

On July 29th, Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), a non-partisan research and evaluation organization, released the results from a survey of New York State charter schools that explored the various responses. The survey focused on schools authorized by SUNY, the New York State Board of Regents, and the New York City Department of Education, and the full report is available on CREDO’s website.  

Among the key findings: 

  • Approximately half of the schools revised their initial remote learning plans to both improve effectiveness and update plans that were designed as short-term stopgaps  
  • Schools responded quickly to the crisis and focused on building the conditions for remote learning, not just remote instruction.  
  • Cooperation and teamwork were high within schools, even when adaptations and in the-moment adjustments were necessary.  
  • Technology posed less of a challenge than first thought.  
  • Schools were able to support SPED and ELL/MLL students throughout the period of remote instruction. 

In addition, the SUNY Charter Schools Institute (“the Institute”) commissioned a separate report looking at data specific to SUNY authorized charter schools. The results, which included responses from 89 percent of SUNY charters, were heartening for all those committed to creating an environment where great schools can take root and thrive.   

Serving Vulnerable Populations 

While schools initially prioritized transitioning their existing learning models – student centered learning and direct instruction – to a remote environment following the closing of school facilities, the focus shifted to more of a blended, self-directed format as schools became more comfortable operating in an online environment. What the CREDO survey reveals is that this growing familiarity also led to expanding non-academic supports for learners 

Importantly, schools were able to adapt IEP supports within a remote environment with 59% of schools reporting a successful adaptation to 1:1 tutoring, 71% reporting the provision of in-class support by a learning specialist, and 77% reporting the ability to deliver special instruction on individual or small group basis.  For Brilla Public Charter Schools that meant expanding its special service teams to ensure it had the capacity to provide 1:1 tutoring for all of its students with disabilities. In fact, Brilla leaders estimate that special education students have received an additional 2,000 – 3,000 minutes of instruction via 1:1 support. At King Center Charter School, occupational therapists (“OT”) and physical therapists (“PT”) hosted weekly calls with parents to discuss upcoming goals and provide YouTube videos to support their child’s therapy. Many schools also utilized virtual office hours, co-taught/parallel groups, resource rooms, and differentiated work assignments to stave off learning loss among its most vulnerable.  

Additionally, 48 percent of schools reported no challenges in supporting ELL students. International Leadership Charter High School created a closed social media group for Spanish speaking staff to engage with parents. Icahn Charter Schools held parent workshops three times per week (some in Spanish) covering both technological and learning support topics as they strived to mirror its brick and mortar ELL services within a remote environment to better communicate and serve multilingual families.   

Addressing Economic Insecurity and Social Emotional Learning  

As a higher number of families accessed counseling services for grief and trauma, schools also responded by directly assisting their communities. Bronx Charter School for Excellence raised $60,000 in May in support of resources for families, including groceries; KIPP NYC, meanwhile, introduced a weekly food pantry, serving over 900 families more than 9,000 meals during April and May. 

On the SEL front, 65% of schools expanded or continued with their social emotional counseling at a distance and 61% went “above and beyond” to keep students engaged virtually, including conducting home visits, providing wifi, and reaching out to extended family members and community based organizations for assistance. Others coordinated virtual field trips and hosted special themed weeks and spirit days. New Visions AIM I Charter School convened parent support groups. Explore Excel Charter School, which created a virtual culture space for students and teachers craving socialization to connect with one another. 

“What’s evident from the CREDO results – and the countless conversations we’ve had with our school leaders – is the extent to which our charters are going above and beyond to support students during this time of crisis,” said Susie Miller Carello, executive director of the Institute. From holding daily mental health checks and creating culture spaces for students and teachers to opening food pantries and paying for resources including groceries for families in need, the human services work has been breathtaking.” 

Building for the Future 

As school leaders turn their attention to fall and a return, there is much uncertainty as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to encircle our local communities. What is clear is reflecting – and learning – from the spring will be critical to creating reopening plans that will ensure more great seats for kids, regardless of whether schools welcome their smiling faces back into the school building, virtually through a screen, or some combination in between.