On May 4th, the American Enterprise Institute, in collaboration with over 20 education leaders including NACSA’s acting President and CEO Karega Rausch, published A Blueprint for Back to School. Recognizing how vital, but also how challenging, reopening school buildings for students and educators will be, the report establishes a framework for what must be done to prepare.
State education officials will establish standards for reopening, while local operators will be responsible for carrying out everything necessary to reopen school doors. Charter school authorizers will have to play a vital role for schools in their portfolio, not only in communicating the standards and supporting schools as they work to meet these requirements, but also in protecting the interests of students, educators, and the public by ensuring charter schools are prepared before reopening buildings.
In some ways, reopening schools for in-person instruction will look much like opening a charter school for its first year. Is the physical space ready for occupancy? Are support services like nurses and food services ready to go? Are staff prepared? Is enrollment meeting budget projections? Charter school authorizers are already well experienced in overseeing schools as they prepare to get up and running: this experience will be essential for ensuring schools have thought through all the prerequisites.
But reopening will also require much more work that will be new to schools and authorizers alike, even for very established schools. It is likely that many schools will not be able to start in-person instruction at the normal start of the school year or may have to deal with “rolling closures” in order to contain virus outbreaks. All schools will have to address significant learning losses, along with uncertainty around assessments and accountability. Students’ socio-emotional needs will be different and require new responses.
This means that authorizers will need to take on totally new oversight tasks, such as reviewing school plans for maintaining social distancing, cleaning and disinfecting, and modifying food services. Increased oversight over mental, physical and socio-emotional health services will be needed. Authorizers will also need to simultaneously hold schools accountable to continuity of learning plans while allowing flexibility to adjust these plans as circumstances change. Much of this is still unknown and will depend on state and local decisions, but there is no doubt that authorizing work will have to change significantly for some time.
Charter school authorizers are already working hard to respond to the crisis by leveraging flexibility in new ways and adopting new approaches to oversight. As we have learned in our Community Conversations series, authorizers are developing continuity of learning plan requirements, modifying how accountability frameworks will be applied, and adjusting how they oversee instruction, as just a few examples. They are working hard to adapt oversight without creating enormous compliance burdens so that operators and educators can focus time and energy on meeting student needs and, where appropriate, supporting schools and working with community partners to help ensure that students and families have what they need.
As schools start turning their attention towards reopening school buildings, authorizers will need to keep asking good questions and listen to schools and communities in responding to new challenges. If authorizers can continue to give charter schools the flexibility to innovate, while protecting student interests, we can do our part to uphold equity and quality.
Jason Zwara analyzes and develops charter authorizing policies as part of NACSA’s policy team. He tracks state and federal legislation and creates policy resources for members and advocacy partners. Have policy questions? Please reach out at [email protected]