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From fully remote to more in-person learning for younger students: Here’s what some NYC charter schools are doing this fall

An empty school hallway with no students
A school hallway sits empty.
Jackie Schechter

New York City charter schools are not taking a one-size-fits-all approach in determining how many days a week students will attend school buildings in the fall.

Unlike district schools, whose education department-created schedules for in-person learning don’t account for a student’s age or needs, charters across the city are exploring various options. Some are prioritizing their youngest learners, students with disabilities or those who have difficult home situations that make remote learning untenable. Others are planning to start remotely at least until the end of September, if not longer, wanting to honor parents’ preferences or waiting to understand more fully health-related guidance.

“We’re trying to just create a flexible plan that can be responsive to the ever-changing guidance and directives that we’re being given,” said Hannah Kehn, principal of New Visions Charter High School for the Humanities IV in Far Rockaway, Queens, where higher needs students are expected to attend four days a week, while others will attend one day. “I’m not going to just be able to do whatever I want because I’m a charter school. I still have to very much abide by the guidance that everyone is abiding by.”

There are 260 charter schools in New York City with about 126,400 students, according to data from New York City Charter School Center. While charters are state regulated and must adhere to the same instruction and safety requirements as district schools — including making sure children stay six feet apart and with the same class all day — they are also self-governing units. That means they can create their own reopening plans, said David Bloomfield, a professor of educational leadership, law, and policy at Brooklyn College. They also typically employ non-union teachers, who have fewer job protections than their district counterparts.

Just as the education department must submit plans for New York City’s district schools, charters must deliver their reopening plans to Albany on Friday.

New Visions Charter High School for the Humanities IV plans to open with 25% of its 314 students in the building at a given time. The plan allows for most students to attend in-person at least once a week, while also enabling a targeted group of students who have special needs, along with students who have struggled with remote learning for a variety of reasons, to attend four times a week, said Kehn. On Wednesdays, both staff and students would be remote, allowing advisors to contact families and host office hours.

“The idea is that in an incremental fashion, that 25% would increase over the course of the year,” Kehn said. “But again, all of that depended on what things are going on in New York City and what guidance we’re given from the state.”

The school has an alternative plan ready in the event that school has to be entirely remote because of the course of the virus, she said.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is expected to announce next week whether he will allow schools to reopen their buildings in September. He has said the local rate of positive coronavirus tests must remain below 5%, which is much higher than the city’s current infection rate of about 1-2%.

East Harlem Scholars Academies, which serves roughly 1,500 students from pre-K through high school, plans to implement a fully virtual schedule when schools start on Aug. 24 and then transition to a hybrid model around Sept. 28. The decision to delay in-person was partially guided by the fact that COVID-19 has severely affected East Harlem, said Dr. Robert Harvey, Superintendent and Senior Managing Director.

The East Harlem ZIP code 10029 had the largest number of COVID cases in Manhattan, according to May reports. The area also had the highest death toll of any Manhattan ZIP code.

Once the hybrid model kicks in, the charter will welcome younger students more days a week to better accommodate parents’ work schedules and the fact that many work service or hourly wage jobs. Pre-k students would attend four times a week, elementary students would go twice a week, and high schoolers would attend only once. High school students with disabilities could choose to attend school in-person an extra day.

“Our goal was to create a schedule that can apply across in-person and virtual,” said. Harvey. “The overwhelming majority of our reopening plan is informed by what our families told us would make their lives easier.”

Students at East Harlem Scholars will have full online schedules from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. that mirror their in-person schedules. The school made that decision for two reasons, said Harvey. First, the school wanted to make sure students understood that remote learning days were still school days that should be treated as such. Second, a full schedule takes the burden off of caregivers and parents.

“We wanted to be clear that our families knew that from 8 to 3:30 everyday, that their scholars were fully engaged in a virtual experience with a teacher regardless of their age,” said Harvey.

Though their plans are not 100% solidified, the Renaissance Charter School in Queens also plans to start completely remote and then move toward a hybrid model, said principal Stacey Gauthier.

The school doesn’t have a set date for when they will move toward the hybrid model, she said, partially because they don’t yet know the course of the virus. As of now, the school is planning to start remotely the week of Labor Day, with the first three days focusing on professional development.

One reason the school intends to begin remote learning is because too many questions remain unanswered. For example, Gauthier still hasn’t heard from the education department if her school will have a nurse this year — something that is essential to her given the pandemic.

She’s also worried about how the school — which typically encourages parents to come into the building and encourages grade levels to interact — will feel if and when students return to the building, Gauthier said, given that social distancing requirements will likely still limit the amount of students allowed in a space.

“The school building is going to look very different,” she said. “The classrooms are going to be much darker and barer because we can’t have a lot of things out for kids to share.”

She is worried that reopening the building will be more labor intensive, requiring more staff to execute tasks like arrival and dismissal, especially for the younger students who may be accustomed to entering the building with their parents.

For fifth graders and above, remote schedules will be very similar to what they’d be doing if they were attending in-person, Gauthier said. Students who are in the building will receive in-person instruction, while students at home would receive the same lesson virtually through live Zoom sessions due to teaching restraints.

“I don’t have enough teachers to have some teachers just being solely remote and some people be classroom teachers,” Gauthier said.

At Coney Island Prep, in Brooklyn, students will begin the year learning remotely on Aug. 31. It plans to be remote at least until the education department reopens buildings on Sept. 10. Schools that share space with other schools will reopen at least two days after their neighbor to ensure the other school has time to sort out things like arrival and dismissal procedures.

When Coney Island Prep students return to school buildings, the frequency will depend on their grade level: kindergarten through second grade will attend four times a week, third through fifth grade will attend three times, sixth through eighth grade will attend twice, and high school students will attend once a week.

The school considered a number of tradeoffs and factors, said Leslie-Bernard Joseph, CEO of Coney Island Prep. One of those factors was that older students can work more independently while remote than younger students.

“I think what we saw from families was a strong preference for a day-by-day schedule rather than having a full week on and a full week off,” he said. “Most of our parents prefer the ability for their kids coming to school at some portion during the week.”

All students in third grade and up will also have remote small group tutoring sessions targeted toward students’ specific needs. A select group of K-2 students will also have in-person small group tutoring, according to the school’s reopening blueprint.

The school also will customize daily student contact and outreach based on students’ needs— whether for personal or academic reasons.

“It’s not enough for a kid to log on,” said Bernard-Joseph. “We also want to make sure that they’re doing the work and they participated.”

Despite creating detailed reopening plans, charter leaders say it remains difficult to know whether they might need to pivot given coronavirus-related uncertainty.

“There are so many unknowns,” said Gauthier. “It’s the end of July. School is a way away. Anything could happen in a month — good or bad.”

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