March 24 — 4:43 pm, 2020

Cyber charters in Pa. keep teaching amid confusion in coronavirus shutdown order

The cyber operators have a narrow definition of what "closed" means.

While most parents across Pennsylvania prepared for the disruption of another week without school, Courtney Hock looked forward to getting her family back into a normal routine.

The coronavirus shutdowns have thrown her Lancaster County family into a state of uncertainty. Courtney’s hours at the brewery in Palmyra where she works as a restaurant manager have been cut. Her husband, Chance Kolakowsli, has been laid off from his construction job. But one area of relief for Courtney is that her daughter’s routine will stay largely intact.

Her daughter, Mena, is a fourth grader at Commonwealth Charter Academy, a cyber charter school that does virtual instruction with students across the state.

Like any other Monday, Mena woke up by 8 a.m. and did some math facts before preparing for her first live class with a teacher at 9 a.m.

After a week of getting used to the new social-distancing reality of education, cyber charters are considerably less impacted by the coronavirus closures than their brick-and-mortar counterparts. Last week, teachers at cyber charters — who typically work from a shared office — prepared from home and did not offer live classes. But, as of Monday, some cyber charters like CCA are now “full speed ahead” including live classes, according to President and CEO Maurice Flurie.

Cyber charter schools educate more than 37,000 students in Pennsylvania according to the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools. In terms of capacity, CCA and other cyber charters offering classes as usual say they could enroll far more students than they already have.

This fact has school districts across the state on edge — fearing drastic damage to their budgets if parents decide en masse to move children to cyber options amid coronavirus uncertainty.

But, at this moment, there is much confusion about what is actually allowed during the state’s shutdown order.

A tension has sprung up between cyber charter and traditional districts that stems from unclear definitions of seemingly simple terms like “closed.”

Inkblot test

According to Mark DiRocco, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, districts across the state are concerned that if cyber charters are allowed to remain teaching and resume “full operation” while brick-and-mortar public schools are closed, parents trying to find the least disruptive option for their children might be tempted to switch to cybers. This would divert school funding away from districts as they try to quickly develop plans to address the potential need for long-term remote learning.

To prevent this, PASA lobbied last week for the Pa. Department of Education to enact a moratorium on cyber charter enrollments while brick-and-mortar public schools are closed.

The uncertainty of how long the closures will last — at least through April 6 statewide — means districts are scrambling to figure out how to pivot. Can they figure out a way to do remote instruction for all? How can they make up weeks of lost school time?

“You have got to give the school districts time to make some decisions, make plans, and put alternative learning delivery systems together,” said DiRocco, arguing it is not fair to “allow the charter schools to say, ‘Well we are open for business now.’”

The administrators association and the superintendents it represents were quickly assured by a clarification to the order that the school closures ordered by Gov. Tom Wolf includes cyber charters.

But cyber charters and districts — longtime antagonists — are reading Wolf’s order like an inkblot test.

Cyber charters do not understand “closed” to mean ceasing operations, but instead the closure of physical spaces in order to allow for the appropriate social distancing needed to combat the coronavirus.

“What closed means is that they can’t be physically within a building in proximity to each other and no group meetings,” Flurie said.

Other cyber charter leaders have similar understandings.

“In accordance with the DOE’s guidance, Agora is not officially open. However, Agora is continuing to provide education within the boundaries of its continuity of education plan,” said Agora Cyber Charter School President and CEO Michael Conti, who said the school is continuing full instruction.

Cyber charters base their interpretation on the part of the order that states that “Educational services may continue in a variety of ways” including “online/digital learning opportunities” as part of their continuity of education plan. And unlike most schools who are not already fully digital, cyber charters believe they can account for the equity concerns that have prevented many districts in the state, including Philadelphia, from offering graded instruction during the shutdown.

The state Department of Education has guided districts to ensure that instruction used during the closure allows “full access to learning for all students, with particular attention to free appropriate public education (FAPE) for students with disabilities and English as a second language (ESL) services for English Learners.”

Cyber schools said they can meet this mandate and operate as they always do while also cancelling physical meetings, field trips and other programming that usually punctuate the otherwise distant learning environment. The way Wolf’s order is written, said Flurie, schools “can provide educational programming to students. And so that is what we are doing.”

Keystone Crossroads attempted to clarify this disagreement with the Pennsylvania Department of Education. The department didn’t address the specific disagreement, only reiterating that all schools were to remain closed, but could proceed with their “continued education plans.”

Additional confusion surrounds the question of whether cybers can count their instructional days toward the state’s 180 day minimum per school year. Cyber charters argue that they are indeed providing full instructional days and plan to grade students normally.

For families like the Hocks, the debate over the state order has had little impact on their day-to-day, at least for now. “[Monday] was a typical day,” Courtney Hock said.

Flurie said that about 50 families are waiting for their enrollment to be completed at CCA alone, but as of Monday the school has stopped finalizing enrollments until it too can gain some clarity from Harrisburg on proper steps.

“We just don’t want to make a misstep,” Flurie said. But over a week into the closure and the number of families interested growing steadily, “we’re still waiting.”

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