How Traditional Public, Private and Charter Schools Responded to the Pandemic | Education News

At the outset of the pandemic in March 2020, the vast majority of traditional public schools, charter schools and private schools were forced to shutter for the remainder of the school year – and, as it would turn out, much, much longer – despite the narrative planted by Republican lawmakers and school choice advocates that private schools stayed the course.

In reality, new federal data shows that while 77% of public schools and 82% of charters pivoted to remote learning, so, too, did 73% of private schools.

But what started as a common approach to navigating a pandemic that’s beginning its third year quickly diverged in the early months. And while the three sectors forged ahead with remote learning, their varying approaches to it laid the groundwork for the national reckoning underway over the country’s public education system – a system that over the last two school years has deepened academic, social and emotional gaps among kids , tested the capacity of the teaching workforce and gave birth to caustic political and cultural fights roiling all levels of government, from school boards to governors races.

At least that’s the picture that emerges from new federal data published by the National Center for Education Statistic, which takes a deep dive into how public, charter and private schools operated early on in the pandemic – a trove of new information that speaks to both the obvious and nuanced differences between the sectors and their capacity to educate children during a moment of intense upheaval.

Teachers in traditional public schools were more likely than their counterparts in charter and private schools to say they lacked resources and support at the beginning of the pandemic and were less likely to hold live, interactive lessons during remote learning, according to a federal survey released last month of thousands of public and private school educators across the US

The survey, which comes from the National Center for Education Statistics, backs up long-standing evidence that many teachers felt they were essentially on their own as they struggled to respond to COVID-19. Conducted during the 2020-21 school year, the poll focused on how schools acted during the beginning of the pandemic in spring 2020.

When asked if they felt they had the resources and support they needed to teach effectively during the pandemic in spring 2020, 61% of traditional public school teachers said yes compared to 66% of charter school teachers and 76% of private school teachers.

The strain was particularly acute in schools with high levels of student poverty – namely, where three-quarters or more of the student body qualifies for free or reduced-price lunches. In those schools, only 59% of teachers felt they had enough support. These frustrations may help to explain why half the teachers in a recent union poll said they were considering leaving the profession.

Many of those pressure points are boiling over in real time. Last week, Minneapolis teachers went on strike for the first time since 1979, demanding higher pay, lower class sizes, better mental health services for children and a commitment to recruiting and retaining teachers of color.

“Our kids, their families and educators have been through tremendous challenges in the last two years,” Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.7-million-member American Federation of Teachers, said as teachers walked the picket lines.

“Educators and students should be the priorities, and districts should provide the conditions and environment they need to succeed,” she said. “School districts should respect their educators and ensure that students have the programs and services they need to thrive.”

The poll also highlights the disconnect between school leadership and staff. When principals were asked whether they had enough resources and support to do their job, 74% in traditional public schools, 72% in charter schools and 78% in private schools said yes.

Overall, remote learning was a reality for the vast majority of students whether they went to public or private school. Seventy-seven percent of traditional public schools, 82% of charters and 73% of private schools said they had to move some or all of their classes online during the pandemic.

But the quality of distance learning varied widely. Only 46% of traditional public school teachers said they scheduled real-time lessons where students could watch or listen live and ask questions, which would most closely recreate the in-person learning experience. In comparison, 55% of charter and 63% of private school teachers held live lessons.

In fact, 13% of traditional public school teachers said they had no real-time interactions with their students at all during the coronavirus pandemic in spring 2020, not even online office hours or chatting with students via video or audio calls. In comparison, 9% of charter or private school teachers said they had no live interactions.

Speaking to an annual conference of the country’s school district superintendents last month, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona lamented the learning loss incurred by school closures and the loss of interaction with educators.

The first nine weeks of remote learning for students in Atlanta at the outset of the pandemic, for example, was estimated to have erased years of consecutive academic gains, resulting in a predicted 3.6 point drop in scores on statewide English language arts tests and a 4.9 point drop on math tests. In fact, Atlanta education policymakers said at the time that the initial pivot to virtual reversed gains so drastically that only 3 out of 10 historically underserved students were on track to grade-level proficiency.

And for urban school districts like Atlanta, where 70% of Black students were still learning remotely in May 2021, those learning losses have only grown. A report from McKinsey & Company found that nationwide, at the start of the 2021-22 school year, white students had lost four to eight months of learning while students of color had lost six to 12 months.

Remote learning was also associated with driving up student mental health crises, including rising rates of depression, anxiety and self-harm, which has been particularly acute for LGBTQ students who lost their school-based support systems.

“When we think about how the pandemic affected students disproportionately, we have to make sure as we reopen schools, we make up for that – that they have the same options as other students,” Cardona said. “That might mean that we fund more because they do not have a device yet and students down the street had [them] three years ago or that they do not have broadband yet and students down the street had it three years ago. ”

Indeed, one reason that traditional public school teachers had fewer real-time interactions with their students is that not all students could access such lessons remotely. The majority of private school principals, 58%, said that all the kids at their school already had internet access at home prior to the pandemic. A mere 3% of traditional public school principals and 10% of charter school principals could say the same.

Students need equitable access to technological devices and a stable, reliable internet

connection in order to participate in online learning, ”says Peggy Carr, National Center for Education Statistics commissioner.

“This report shows that many students at both public and private schools struggled with

technology during the first phases of the COVID-19 pandemic. ”

Public schools did pull through to help support students who lacked internet access. In public schools, including charters and traditional ones, 84% of principals said they gave out computers or other digital devices to their students, 61% sent home hotspot devices and 37% set up free Wi-Fi in public areas like parking lots and school buses.

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Only 67% of private school principals gave out devices, and fewer than 10% offered hotspots or free Wi-Fi.

“Principals around the country took extraordinary measures to get their students online during the pandemic,” Carr says. “Many principals sent hotspots and other devices to students’ homes, worked directly with internet providers, or offered spaces where students could safely access free Wi-Fi so that students had the opportunity to learn in this unprecedented time.”

However, once again the schools that most needed extra resources were less likely to get them. In high-poverty public schools, 23% of principals said they did not distribute computers. This was true in only 8% of lower-poverty schools – those where less than about a third of students qualify for lunch subsidies.

The South, in particular, lagged behind other regions when it came to effective online learning. One-quarter of principals in Southern public schools said they gave out no computers, and 16% of teachers in the region said they had no real-time interactions with children during remote learning. Teachers in the South were also less likely than teachers in other regions to say they had office hours, group sessions, or one-on-one sessions with students through video or audio call.

Policymakers say they’re eager to see the survey data on the differences between traditional public schools, charter schools and private schools as they navigated schooling during the pandemic during the latter half of 2020-21 school year, when the majority of schools across the country began experimenting with reopening in person.

One of the biggest debates to spiral out of the pandemic is whether the decision by school system leaders to provide in-person instruction or remain virtual will dramatically alter how the country’s public education system operates going forward.

Some posit that decisions to stay remote have angered parents and that major enrollment drops alongside an uptick in charter and private school enrollment – especially in some of the big-city school districts that stayed remote the longest – are proof of that.

“It’s tough because there is synchronous learning that can be done well or it can be done horribly and there is asynchronous learning that can be done well or can be done horribly,” says Michael McShane, director of national research at EdChoice, a group that supports giving parents more education options outside their zoned public school. “It’s tough to make too much of a value judgment on it, but it’s an interesting finding – that private schools leaned into trying to do more synchronous versus asynchronous learning.”

Others point out that in survey after survey a majority of parents have always favored safety measures like temporarily closing schools when COVID-19 transmission is high and that the vast majority of parents believe their teachers did the best with what they had and remain supportive of their local schools – even if they’re not as supportive as they’ve been in the past.

Policymakers and legislators are looking forward to the 2022 midterms to whether dissatisfaction translates at the ballot boxes, as it has in some instances already – like with the election of GOP Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin last year and even more recently, the ouster of three Democratic school board members in San Francisco through a recall effort.

“I think going forward we are going to continue to see an adversarial relationship in the education system,” McShane says. “I think this is not going away and I think the pandemic played a big role in that.”


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