In confronting pandemic, a new challenge for Philadelphia charter schools

The independent sector responsible for 70,000 students in the city has some state guidance, but little oversight. Each school develops its own safety plan.

The scene at Mastery Shoemaker's graduation on June 11. (Photo by Bill Hangley)

The scene at Mastery Shoemaker's graduation on June 11. (Photo by Bill Hangley)

This article originally appeared on The Notebook.

It was graduation day, but even as tears of happiness ran down Sheldon Bullock’s face, his proud father couldn’t forget one thing: A diploma alone won’t stop the coronavirus.

“It’s 110,000 people dead. And it disproportionately affects African Americans and Latinos. So you’ve got to be on point,” said Sheldon Bullock Sr. as he stood on the crowded sidewalk outside Mastery Shoemaker Charter School. “I tell my son, be smart. Put the damn mask on.”

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On this rainy Thursday, June 11, such worries weren’t at the front of this father’s mind. Instead, he beamed with pride and gratitude. The family had nothing but praise for Shoemaker, which serves about 700 students in grades 7-12.

“These people have been so good to him, even in his darkest days,” said Bullock.

“Everybody pushed me, and I love everyone here for it,” said his son, wiping away tears.

Sheldon Bullock Jr. (Photo by Bill Hangley)

But even amid the smiles, the elder Bullock couldn’t forget that the virus can lurk anywhere – including this bustling celebration. Mastery did right by his son in the classroom, Bullock said, but the charter school could have handled this last day a little better – even if that meant telling a bunch of happy graduates to stop hugging each other.

“Somebody should have said, ‘Social distancing, remember it!’” said the elder Bullock.

Outdoor transmission of the virus appears rare. But the scene outside Shoemaker that day speaks to the challenge that Mastery and all schools face as they prepare for a September like no other.

When school re-starts this fall, Philadelphia’s 87 charters must not only develop their own safety plans, but also implement every detail themselves. While District schools have the support and oversight of District leaders and departments, the charters will have minimal outside oversight from state and local officials. It will be largely up to charter school communities – families, staff, board members, and supporters – to ensure that their schools respond effectively.

“Brick-and-mortar charters are facing the same challenges as school districts,” said Jessica Hickernell, chief spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools (PCPCS). “The greatest concern is the uncertainty about what school will look like in the fall.”

Weighing possible plans

Possible scenarios include a full in-person return to schools, a continuation of remote learning, or some combination of the two. Like the School District, charters are weighing many options: staggered schedules, socially distanced classrooms, having teachers move from room to room instead of students. They are looking at deep, frequent cleanings and installing handwashing stations.

Some are in new buildings, some in old; some are crowded, some have space. Finding one standard solution is unlikely, just as Superintendent William Hite anticipates different approaches being used among the different District schools.

And in figuring out what works for them, charters will not be completely on their own; state officials will give them basic guidance, and they’ll be supported by special allocations of federal stimulus funds. They will have the same access to health officials and their expertise as all Pennsylvania school districts do.

But once their plans are set, managing the day-to-day details of pandemic safety will fall to them – a major new responsibility for a sector designed to be independent.

“Our capacity is smaller, but we have to make all the same decisions and take all the responsibility,” said Ellen Somekawa, executive director of the Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School (FACTS), a 500-student K-8 charter based in Chinatown.

In the case of last week’s graduation scene at Shoemaker, school officials had decided that they wanted a graduation ceremony, so they worked out their own plan. What they had hoped would be a socially distant ceremony at the Mann Center, which is near the school, ended up including a sprawling, sometimes jostling line of people outside the school, with rain and traffic forcing families close together.

The weather had forced a move for the event – from the Mann Center to the Shoemaker campus at 53rd and Media Streets – and the result was a sprawling crowd waiting to enter the building in small groups. A handful of Mastery staffers helped guide the lines, but for the most part, the group was on its own to manage itself as bursts of rain came and went.

Mastery officials later apologized for the violation of “strict protocols” and promise to do better.

But if anyone unknowingly spread the coronavirus at Mastery that day, any policy changes by the charter will come too late; this is the harsh reality of the COVID pandemic. Likewise, when September arrives, if charters experience consistent problems in responding to the virus, it won’t be easy for the public or even the rest of the charter community to know.

“There is no overarching system that looks at charter performance and practices, to figure out how effectively they work,” said Reynelle Brown Staley, head policy director at the Education Law Center. “There’s no formal process for sharing information and best practices.”

Sector has 70,000 students

As a sector, charter schools will play a large role in Philadelphia’s overall pandemic response. They will be responsible for the health and safety of about one-third of Philadelphia’s public school students. Collectively, Philadelphia’s charter sector enrolls 70,000 students, including 11,500 in Mastery schools.

State officials are requiring all charters, like all school districts, to make a basic safety plan that includes protocols for social distancing, online learning, and staggered schedules. Charters must plan to monitor staff and students for symptoms and protect “high-risk” members of the school community.

But those plans will be subject to minimal outside oversight, both as they’re developed and once they’re approved. The charter sector’s response will be as diverse as the schools themselves.

“There will be a lot of variation. We’re an independent group,” said David Hardy, interim CEO of Boys’ Latin Charter School and executive director of the statewide advocacy organization Excellent Schools PA.

The stakes for charters – and for all schools – are high. Enrollment is their bread and butter, and if families don’t like their safety plans, students could leave.

“Any school leader has to be concerned that we could lose some parents,” said Somekawa.

Hardy believes charters will do “the right thing,” but not everyone is equally optimistic.

“It’s hard to have a lot of confidence,” said Lisa Haver of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools (APPS), a volunteer watchdog group. “It’s not that they don’t care about children. It’s that there is not a uniform system.”

Such concerns were not enough to dampen the spirits of the hundreds who came to Shoemaker last week for what Mastery had billed as a safe, socially distant ceremony.

Among the newly minted graduates was Daniel Scott, who said the school had served him well.

“The staff here, they’re true to themselves,” said Scott. “They’ll let you know when you’re wrong, but they don’t hold grudges.”

But Scott wasn’t surprised to see social distancing break down at graduation. His classmates and their families understand the risks, he said, but “there’s so much going on. We did all that work during the pandemic, and now we finally get to come together to celebrate.”

Later, charter officials promised to learn from the episode.

“I am sorry to hear that Mastery’s strict social distancing protocols were not being observed outside of the venue,” said spokesperson Kerry Woodward. “We’ll incorporate this feedback as a lesson learned in planning for next year.”

But even if the breakdown was relatively minor, it falls to Mastery to respond. Under Pennsylvania law, charters are responsible for every aspect of their pandemic response.

Like the school districts that fund them, charter schools will have to follow some basic pandemic safety guidelines. Gov. Wolf’s most recent guidance requires each charter school to develop a “safety plan” before re-opening. Besides giving details on the state’s non-negotiables around social distancing, hygiene, and monitoring student and staff health, each charter must designate a “pandemic coordinator” responsible for managing its response effort.

Those safety plans must be approved by charters’ boards and posted publicly on charter websites before classes can re-start in September.

But there is no firm deadline for the plans, state officials say. PDE has offered a “template” for charters to use, but they aren’t required to use it. Nor do charters’ plans require any state or local approval before the charter boards vote on them.

“PDE does not approve the [safety] plans before they are presented to governing boards. But school entities can seek assistance,” said Eric Levis, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Education. If a charter approves a clearly insufficient plan, Levis said, the state can try to get it revised. “If it were clear that a plan did not meet … requirements, the department would work with the school entity to correct the deficiencies,” he said.

Likewise, local school officials also play only an advisory role. Charters’ plans do not require approval from their “authorizers” – i.e. the school districts that fund them. The School District of Philadelphia can monitor and advise the city’s charters, but it can’t compel them to follow any particular health policy.

On many of those issues, “there’s no right way to do it,” said Hardy, and charters will make their own assessments of what’s best for their communities.

At FACTS, for example, Somekawa says the school is taking part in  “as many forums and trainings as possible,” exploring “multiple scenarios” for the fall. Among the factors that FACTS must consider is the work schedules of its families. FACTS doesn’t want to drive anyone away by creating a school schedule that doesn’t fit with parents’ schedules.

“We’re surveying parents – could you live with half-time?” she said. “Right now we’re trying to show the parent community that we care and that we’re listening.”

State officials said they do not have plans for inspections or other oversight to ensure that charters implement their pandemic safety plans. Instead, they are relying on school communities to monitor their charters. Requiring charter boards to make the plans public will ensure that they follow through effectively, Levis said.

“Plans must be approved by the [charter’s] governing body at a public meeting and posted to the school entity’s public website,” said Levis. “We believe that this level of public involvement and transparency will ensure that school entities implement their plans.”

Change brings opportunity

Some charter administrators see opportunity, including Penny Nixon, the superintendent and chief academic officer of Universal Companies, which runs a network of eight Philadelphia charter schools. Nixon said that the pandemic – along with the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the national push for racial justice that has followed – has exposed systemic inequities that must be corrected.

“We have to move this conversation past, ‘are you proficient or advanced?’ and towards, ‘are you taking care of me?’” said Nixon.

At Universal, some of this spring’s temporary pandemic practices could become permanent, making schools safer and more effective, Nixon said. For example, distance learning allows schools to offer students specialized offerings – such as AP classes – that otherwise wouldn’t be available, she said.

“I’ve told my principals, we’re going to continue some kind of virtual education as we move forward, because we can offer more with it,” Nixon said.

But for the most part, Philadelphia charter administrators’ plans for September are no clearer than those of their district counterparts. The most basic questions remain unanswered.

“One thing I wonder is, how are you going to ensure that teachers are safe?” asked Susan Spicka, director of Ed Voters PA, a statewide advocacy group.

Concern about oversight

Observers are concerned that charter plans won’t get the scrutiny they need. ELC’s Staley said that “robust” oversight from state officials is necessary to ensure that the plans are actually implemented.

“If all that’s needed is a plan,” without oversight or consequences, “then there’s no benefit to having a plan,” Staley said.

But no such oversight appears forthcoming from either state or local officials. Instead, charters will approach this issue as independently as they approach everything else, said Donna Cooper of the advocacy group Public Citizens for Children & Youth (PCCY).

Under Pennsylvania law, Cooper said, “there is no entity with real oversight powers” positioned to oversee charters’ pandemic response. Philadelphia School District officials can try to monitor and influence the sector, she said, but “their power to enforce anything associated with charters is extremely limited.”

Meanwhile, for District-run schools, Hite sent a survey to parents and students to fill out this week. He has promised to share a range of possible September scenarios sometime in July. These scenarios include a “hybrid” mix of online and classroom learning and will likely prove useful to the charter sector, advocates say, but they hope that the District learns from charters as well.

“It is our hope that this stressful situation will provide an opportunity for school districts and charter schools to open meaningful lines of communication and allow districts to see the immense value that charter schools provide,” Hickernell said.

Hardy said that the sector’s primary discussions about pandemic policy have been with state officials at the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Communications with PDE have been good so far, he said.

“They’ve been very forthcoming. They recognize our independence,” Hardy said. “The secretary [of education] didn’t preach to us; he came to us as a colleague.”

Charters and their supporters have shared little with the public about September preparations. The sector’s most prominent state advocate, PCPCS, has been quiet on the subject. So has the sector’s biggest local booster, the Philadelphia School Partnership.

Likewise, officials at the Philadelphia School District have said almost nothing about charters’ reopening plans during their many pandemic discussions. Since the coronavirus outbreak began, the board has renewed three schools’ five-year charters and is poised to renew five more. But neither board members nor administrators have raised the issue of charter safety in committee or action meetings.

Charter parents can approach individual schools for information, but if Philadelphia’s charters are collectively on the right track, it’s hard to tell, said Haver.

“When you have a system that’s set up to be not-a-system, it’s impossible for parents to know,” she said.

CARES Act resources coming

To support its efforts, the charter sector has some federal dollars coming its way. The federal stimulus bill known as the CARES Act includes millions of dollars for schools, including specific allocations for charters, calculated by a formula based on historic poverty-related federal spending.

The Philadelphia School District itself will get about $117 million in CARES money to spread among all its schools. Charter operators get direct CARES grants allocated for individual charter schools. Mastery Shoemaker, for example, has been allocated $539,000. Other Mastery campuses have similar allocations – $641,000 for Pickett, $565,000 for Smedley, and $1 million for Gratz.

Those funds will be essential if charters are to maintain their standards while also improving safety, said Hickernell; the pandemic has increased schools’ costs.

Schools “have shifted funds to pay for technology,” she said. “The federal funds coming to schools through the CARES Act will be extremely important.”

At FACTS, for example, its CARES dollars are already hard at work.

“We’re doing a lot of physical changes to our building,” said Somekawa, including adding hand-washing stations, expanding the nurse’s office, and possibly removing lockers. Much of that work is funded by its one-time CARES grant of nearly $360,000, as are some summer programs and other student services, she said.

Charters are also eligible for small business loans through CARES, a practice that has raised eyebrows locally and nationwide. (FACTS did not apply for a loan.)

“It’s amazing – they’re public schools when they’re taking state and local tax dollars, and they’re small businesses when they’re taking federal dollars,” said APPS’ Haver. “Nice gig!”

The Notebook has been asking for information on the status of those loans. But little is yet known about what will happen with any CARES money, grants included. Hickernell said that schools themselves are still just beginning to assess what the pandemic’s demands mean for charter budgets.

“I don’t think we will know the true financial impact that COVID-19 will have on schools until we understand what exactly will be asked of schools, teachers, and students in the fall,” Hickernell said.

Hardy said that on the whole, he expects charters to follow scientific guidance on the big issues and make good decisions about the details.

“They have to. Otherwise, people leave,” Hardy said.

But advocates and critics alike agree: Assessing charters’ pandemic response won’t be easy. If a given school is falling short, “I’m not sure it’s going to be that obvious,” said Hardy.

ELC’s Staley says it’s neither fair nor effective to rely on parents to hold charters accountable for pandemic practices. Families shouldn’t have to wait until they see their school falling short, she said.

“There needs to be a government mechanism to set parameters and guardrails” and ensure that charters follow best health and safety practices, said Staley. That same system needs to “impose consequences” where necessary.

Such oversight would run against the grain of charter trends, Staley said. The sector has fought hard to protect its independence on many fronts, she said, usually by arguing that parents should decide what’s best, not policymakers. That’s an approach that ELC and other analysts say has resulted in many inequities within the charter sector, in areas such as enrollment and services to students who have special needs.

Charters’ pandemic response must not repeat the same pattern, Staley said.

“Charters have been pushing back against all sorts of reforms and oversight, and the response from the sector has been ‘customers will vote with their feet,’” said Staley. “We’ve seen that that’s not enough.”

Haver said it’s a mistake to read too much into something like the unruly line outside Shoemaker. Mastery can’t make every parent follow every rule, she said, but they must be transparent and thorough when dealing with systemic problems.

“Any teacher will sympathize when you’re trying to tell a big group of people what to do and they don’t do it,” she said with a laugh. “But there are other things that they have to stay on top of.”

Among her concerns: a repeat of Mastery’s handling of a toxic-water crisis at its Frederick Douglass elementar campus, where years of warning signs and complaints went unheeded before a series of lead tests in 2019 finally triggered a response.

“There’s a difference between people in a line not doing what you want them to do, and brown water coming out of a water fountain,” said Haver.

How parents can assess safety plans

For parents, Hardy said, assessing the quality of charters’ emerging plans will be challenging but not impossible. An important indicator, he said, is a charter’s basic financial health. Charters that have struggled to manage budgets in the past may well struggle to handle the demands of the pandemic, he said. Hardy recommends that parents look over the District’s charter school assessments, including the Annual Charter Evaluation (ACE), which summarizes the school’s academic, financial and organizational status.

“I give the Charter Schools Office credit,” said Hardy. “That ACE measure is really a pretty good way to tell you where your school is at. It’s very efficient and it’s right there online.”

Another sign of a well-prepared school will be a clear plan that tells students and staff exactly how to handle certain situations, Hardy said, including a “bounce-back” of new infections. “The good schools are going to practice,” he said.

Parents with concerns will be able to turn to charter school boards and staff. Haver recommends they push past that layer and press District officials directly.

“It’s the Board of Education where the buck stops,” she said. “It shouldn’t be parents running around to charter board meetings. … In this system, it’s catch-as-catch-can, and that’s a disservice to families and students.”

But the District’s influence over charters will be limited. Charters are not required to coordinate their plans with their authorizing school districts. Instead, PDE’s Levis said that charters will be “strongly encouraged” to work with local officials. “This will ensure that students in the same locality – and even from the same family – experience similar safety and disease mitigation protocols,” Levis said.

And although Hardy says all charters share an interest in keeping students and families safe and satisfied, he concedes that not every charter will meet a gold standard.

“I don’t know that there’s a way to make all schools do well,” said Hardy.

Bonding at school

On the sidewalk in front of Shoemaker, the value of close human relationships was obvious. As the graduates filed out of the building, they hugged, laughed, shouted, and cried, surrounded by clusters of friends and family.

Standing by was Mastery counselor Heywood Henderson, deeply moved by his students’ success in the face of unprecedented disruption. Shoemaker sits just blocks from the 52nd Street sites where police tear-gassed demonstrators and looters ravaged stores during Philadelphia’s police-violence protests. The National Guard’s brown Humvees roamed the neighborhood until just days before graduation.

“With the outbreak and the riots – for these kids to push through, I couldn’t imagine being 18 and going through the same thing,” Henderson said.

Come September, the key for students will be “patience and perseverance,” said Henderson. Mastery administrators will “just need to come together,” he added, but before he could finish the thought, he spotted one of his students and bolted.

“I gotta run!” Henderson shouted happily as he disappeared among the blue gowns. “She worked so hard!”

Bullock, the graduating senior, watched all this with a smile, drying tears still visible on his face. Next year he’ll be at Morgan State University in Baltimore, he said, and people like Henderson made it possible. The counselor “broke his fingers typing” to get him into the right program, Bullock said. Shoemaker’s principal “treated me like a son.”

But it was his classmates who got him through these last few months, Bullock said.

“We all made a group chat, checking up on each other every single day. Making sure our homework was done, every day,” he said. “It was us, the class, we pulled it all together to pull through.”

Those words would warm the heart of any educator. But for charters, Hardy said, nurturing such relationships is particularly important. When September comes, charters will need to learn to keep students and staff safe from each other, while still allowing them to bond, in and out of the classroom.

Hardy said with a laugh: “I can promise you, very few of the boys who come to Boys’ Latin want to learn Latin.”

So as graduation fades and September approaches, the younger Bullock’s advice to Mastery is simple. “Just keep doing what they’re doing,” he said.

The elder Bullock agrees – “they must be doing something right,” he said – but he can’t forget about the coronavirus either. His wife is a registered nurse who spent weeks working in coronavirus wards. Seeing her risk her life to serve her patients left him humbled and keenly aware of the risks. When he thinks of students going to school in September, he remembers watching his wife go to work, leaving the house each morning to face a deadly enemy that no one can see.

“I hung a lantern outside my house every time she left,” said Bullock, as members of the Class of 2020 laughed around him. “I gave her a salute every morning when she got in her car to go into battle. Because that’s what it is.”

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