Charter school leaders look back on two years of COVID

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Children are seen walking, on the first day of lifting the indoor mask mandate for DOE schools between K through 12, in Manhattan, New York City, New York, U.S., March 7, 2022.
REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

March 15 marked the two-year anniversary of when the New York City public school system shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, school as we know it has completely changed with leaders implementing remote learning as well as mask and vaccine mandates once schools reopened.

As the anniversary drew near, charter school leaders reflected on the herculean struggles of maintaining functioning educational centers that continued to challenge and teach while still ensuring the safety of students and faculty.

“We were the first New York City elementary schools to reopen our doors in person, full-time, five days a week in August 2020,” said Emily Kim, founder and CEO of Zeta Charter Schools. “We ran our full-time in person school model as well as a full-time remote model to accommodate families who really needed us to open. So that included children with special needs, English Language Learners (ELL) [and] children of essential workers.”

Schools had shifted to a remote learning model on March 23, 2020 and it was important to accommodate the needs of guardians as well as students, Kim said, because not everyone had the immediate availability of safe, reliable and affordable childcare. It was also important to ensure trust between school administrators and families during such a tumultuous time.

“All of us were just in a state of fear and not fully understanding what was going to happen and what the future held [with respect to COVID], and there were no vaccines on the horizon at that time,” said Kim. “We really had to spend a lot of time deepening the relationships we had with our families and also communicating at a very high level with a lot of transparency with our staff.”

However, by November of 2020 schools were forced to shut down and adopt the remote learning model once again after just eight weeks of instruction due to a rise of cases.

“There’s the lesson of obviously being prepared for anything and being flexible and I think it certainly showed the genius of the charter model whereby these groups could make decisions quickly and act with great agility in the face of ever-changing circumstances,” said James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter Center. “Everyone learned that the schools that had built strong relationships with their communities – meaning parents and students – were much more able to use that trust to ensure that parents were ready to help out with remote learning.”

Now two years down the road with the mandatory mask mandate lifted in New York schools, educational leaders have a much better understanding of how to quickly adapt and effectively educate their students regardless of dire circumstances like possible future variants or other emergencies.

“We have to be able to manage COVID,” Kim said. “Schools are managing every manner of illness every single day. I think we’ve reached a point where we know how to manage COVID. If there were an outbreak we would certainly require masking, and we can act very nimbly. There’s still fear and trepidation, but I think also Omicron taught us that we can deal with another variant. We now know what to do.”

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