Students working together in a classroom
Students working together in a classroom | stock image

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The pandemic was massively disruptive to education in all forms — from public to private to charter schools.

While nearly all students at traditional public schools will be back to in-person classes for the 2021-2022 school year, things are a bit more mixed in the charter school space.

There are more than 1,000 charter schools in San Diego County. And each one is independently operated, which means there will be no shortage of options in fall 2021. Some charter schools are still planning to offer virtual options to students even as others take the opposite route.

On one end of that spectrum is Literacy First Charter Schools, where Executive Director Debbie Beyer told Voice of San Diego there is “not even one” situation in which the El Cajon-based charter school group would limit in-person learning in the new school year, other than in cases for students with health conditions. K-5 students have been back on Literacy First campuses since September 2020; middle and high school students returned in mid-April.

Beyer said when Literacy First had to switch to distance learning in March 2020, things were tough — staff and parents both felt, she said, a loss of the sense of community the school had provided.

“What we realized in all of this, Literacy First, we are a very strong community, and education is probably third down on the list of support we give to our families,” Beyer said. “I mean, we are support to parents — we provide daycare, we provide nutrition, we provide counseling.”

Literacy First will still offer its TK-8 Freedom Academy independent study program as it has in the past, Beyer said. Parents with students in the brick-and-mortar Literacy First schools will also be able to send their children to Freedom Academy without losing their spots at their in-person schools, something Literacy First made an option for parents at the start of the pandemic.

“We’ve extended it for a second year because again we realized if we have to stay with the three-foot (rule) if everybody at Freedom wants to come back we can’t fit them,” Beyer said, referring to the guideline adopted by the CDC and the California Department of Public Health in March stipulating that schools maintain a minimum of three feet of distance for all students and employees — a guideline that was revised downward from the original six feet.

But Literacy First, Beyer said, just did not have the ability to offer a distance program for another year.

“We disbanded that completely and said these are your options, you can do [Freedom Academy] or you can come back in person,” Beyer said, “but we don’t have the bandwidth as a small school to offer all of these things.”

At the other end of the spectrum is the Julian Charter School family, which has 10 academic programs serving students in San Diego and Riverside counties. Julian Charter School offers several different options, including online-only and hybrid learning.

Its home study program is designed for home-school students, who primarily work with their parents in completing schoolwork. But Julian Charter also provides teacher-driven online education. High schoolers can also enroll in an independent study program that allows them to interact with teachers online on a daily basis. And students in all grade levels can enroll in a program that allows them to meet with a teacher in person two to four days per week.

School leaders wanted to offer the kind of virtual learning “where the kids actually feel like they’re at school,” said Lori Cummings, the school’s director of virtual learning. “So not just kids kind of surfing the internet to figure out education, but actually a somewhat structured environment where it’s like they’re going back to school, they’re waking up, they’re doing certain things, not always on Zoom but sometimes on their own, they have a set schedule and then they’re coming into Zoom for either tutoring or open office hours or classes.”

While the program was not started with COVID-19 in mind and was only offered to grades six through 12 in its inaugural year, it was a big help to parents when it was expanded during 2020-2021, Cummings said.

The school now serves all grade levels. The plan, Cummings said, is for the program to continue growing.

“Next school year, between 150 and 195 students is my goal,” she said. “Right now, this year, we had 125.”

The program offers a mix of synchronous and asynchronous learning — that is, teacher-led lessons and independent tasks — that varies depending on the age of the students, Cummings said. She estimated that elementary students’ level of synchronous learning was about 30-40 percent, compared with around 25-30 percent for middle school and as low as 20 percent for high school.

“It really depends, you get older, the kids have more decisiveness so they just decide if they want to come to the class or not,” Cummings said.

Meanwhile, E3 Civic High, a charter in downtown San Diego, is an example of a school that has the capability to offer distance learning. Each student at E3 had a school-issued computer, even before the pandemic, said E3’s director Cheryl James-Ward. Students will have the option to continue with distance learning, but school leaders believe it’s important to students’ emotional health to get back to school as close to 100 percent in-person as possible.

Transitioning to virtual learning back in March 2020 did not take very long, James-Ward said.

“We closed on Friday [March 13] and we opened in a virtual world Monday [March 16],” she said. “We had absolutely no break in our instruction.”

E3 was able to do that, James-Ward said, because of the existing level of computer access, as well as the fact it was already using programs like Google Classroom. But it was no substitute for in-person learning, she said.

“We had online curriculum, but our online curriculum is not to be taught as online curriculum. It’s supplemental, like a textbook,” James-Ward said.

She said E3 began offering five-day-a-week in-person learning as soon as it could.

“We really opened that up to kiddos whose families were first responders, or if they were in trauma, or if they were really struggling with their schoolwork or just if the online was like, a no-go, period,” James-Ward said.

Next year, E3 leaders will push most of their students to return to in-person learning. They’ll only offer virtual learning to a few different student groups, such as junior and senior students who were performing much better in a virtual environment than they had previously or those with health conditions, she said.

“It would be very few (students who remain in virtual learning) … there might be five or so for various reasons that would stay in the hybrid model, but our goal is 100 percent of the kids back on campus,” James-Ward said, “and we’re working on plans to have them come running and skipping back.”

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