School Reopenings: One Authorizer Focuses on Student Safety in Reopening Plans


School Reopenings: One Authorizer Focuses on Student Safety in Reopening Plans

This is a guest blog post by Scott Pearson, former Executive Director of the DC Public Charter School Board and NACSA Board Member.

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic has required urgent and thoughtful collaboration among many stakeholders to support students and families. Whether that has meant partnering with other government agencies, health officials, other public schools, and schools in our portfolio, the DC Public Charter School Board has prioritized working collaboratively – while upholding charter school autonomy – to maximize safety and learning for students.

Here I’d like to briefly share how those efforts are playing out, and what we are planning for the upcoming 2020-21 school year.

  1. Hybrid, but Coordinated Schedules. Our health guidelines mean that it’s unlikely schools will be able to serve all students 100% in-person.  And we know many don’t yet feel safe sending their children to school.  So it’s inevitable that the 2020-21 school year will be a mix – some students all virtual, some students with rotating schedules of in-person and virtual, and perhaps some with some students attending full-time.

Each charter school will need to make its own decision about the right mix, given its facility and staff constraints, its family desires, and its philosophy.

But we are working collaboratively with our traditional school system to get as many of our schools as possible to line up to one of the same two basic schedules. This is for the sake of families with kids in multiple schools, and so that transportation and employment systems can line up as well.  These two options are:

  • A/B: students come in two days a week: Monday+Tuesday or Thursday+Friday. Some students may be all virtual.  Others may attend every day but Wednesday, which is a cleaning day.
  • C/D/E/F: students come in one day a week: either Monday, Tuesday, Thursday or Friday. Some students may be all virtual.  Others may attend every day but Wednesday.
  1. Baseline Expectations. We have worked closely with our state education agency, OSSE, to establish baseline expectations for all schools, whether for classes offered in-person or virtual.

Organized around three pillars of High Expectations, Equity + Access, and Family Engagement, these expectations include such things as:

  • Ground instruction in state standards
  • Maintain policies for credit attainment and graduation
  • Assess student work for completion and mastery
  • Ensure that qualifying families have access to nutritious food
  • Expand access to devices and internet access to all students who need it
  • Deliver appropriate services to students with disabilities and English learners
  • Provide trainings to families to facilitate learning at home

Schools are required to complete a detailed submission over the summer describing their plans for the upcoming school year.  This will be reviewed jointly by DC PCSB and OSSE for consistency with the baseline expectations.

  1. Continue to Evolve Accountability. Because so much is unknown, we are not rushing to lock down what accountability will look like in 2020-21.

Our desire is to have the highest level of “normal” accountability as possible. But we recognize that much of the data for the next school year will either be unavailable, unreliable, or not comparable to previous years.  For this reason we passed a policy that nullifies much 2019-20 data and allows for higher levels of discretion when implementing our long-standing accountability polices.  Much of this policy speaks to DC PCSB’s oversight practices in 2019-20. Our team is working on further adjustments for the 2020-21 school year.

Consistent with NACSA’s advice, we are also doing a lot of listening to schools for input on how to modify our accountability framework.

And we realize that next year will be different.  We’ve always shied away from focusing on inputs, but in the absence of good outcomes data, we may need to lean more heavily on these as we monitor school quality.

  1. Keep Supporting Schools. We hired two health experts to provide technical assistance to schools as they work to interpret health guidelines and plan their re-opening.  We shared exemplars from schools’ 2019-20 learning plans.   And, after hosting 69 webinars on distance learning during March-May, we passed the baton to OSSE, who has put together a comprehensive collection of trainings and supports for schools, complemented by other trainings, resources and supports funded by local philanthropists.

School year 2020-21 will be a year like no other.  Autonomy and accountability have always been the foundation of charter schools.  We need to honor these while adapting to the demands of this pandemic, which calls for more coordination, more supports, and the need to ensure that baseline expectations for schooling are met.