Unlike most public schools, the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School has experienced a mostly seamless transition during the COVID-19 crisis.
That’s because the cyber school, which is headquartered in Midland, can offer many of the same online education services it offered before Gov. Tom Wolf ordered public schools to close their buildings beginning in Mid-March.
If anything, Pa Cyber has upped its game in response to the health threats associated with the coronavirus proving that technology can find a way, Brian Hayden, the school’s CEO, explained in an interview.
The benefits and advantages of cyber learning have become more evident when Gov. Tom Wolf announced on April 9 that schools would remain closed for the duration of the 2019-2020 school year in response to COVID-19. In his public remarks, Wolf also said that despite the closures “teaching and learning may continue” and that “schools are strongly encouraged to provide continuity of education for all students in the most appropriate and accessible ways possible.”
The Pennsylvania Department of Education has “secured resources” that include technology support for those schools that do not offer online platforms, according to the governor’s message. So, there’s a tacit acknowledgement here from no less than the Wolf administration that cyber charter schools are the schools best equipped to pivot and adjust to the pandemic.
But Hayden also wants parents, students and policymakers to know that cyber schools face their own challenges and that with new technology comes new challenges.
“We are entering our 20th year and we have learned a lot about what it takes to do cyber education,” he said. “We’ve learned about the types of inventions that need to be made with technology and infrastructure. Also, I would say in training teachers, and orienting families, all of it has come from experience, time, trial and error. Cyber education isn’t for everyone in the same way that brick and mortar education isn’t for everyone. Students have to choose this, and it has to be a cooperative effort between the families and the schools.”
But for those students who did choose to enroll and who are willing and able to make the most of their online environment Hayden is pleased to report that there have been very few interruptions.
“What we have done online has continued and we’ve actually enhanced some of that,” Brian Hayden, the school’s CEO, said. “Our students are not receiving any less instruction today than they did say going back to March 10. “Students all get full instruction. Teaching hasn’t changed and the expectation of the students hasn’t changed.”
Pa Cyber, which was founded in 2000, has two components that Hayden discussed in an interview. The largest component is online, which does not just involve teaching, but also involves online clubs and workshops. The other component draws from programming available at regional offices such as music classes, martial arts instruction, dances and holiday events. Last year the school had 660 face-to-face activities, Hayden said. But in response to Wolf’s shutdown order, Pa Cyber closed its regional offices and transitioned into having its staff work from home.
Online instruction exists in two different formats, Hayden explained. “We have our virtual classroom where the student turns their computer on and there’s a class with about 22 students and the teacher teaches a live class. But then there’s a blended classroom that’s more of a synchronous model where there will be teachers available to provide instruction and guidance, but students work at their own pace.”
There’s another advantage to online learning that Constance Barber, a teacher with the Agora Cyber Charter School based in King of Prussia, encourages prospective students and their parents to consider. Barber teaches English Language Arts for 3rd, 4th and 5th graders in the school’s advanced learner’s program.
She finds that empowering students with the ability to choose which learning environment best suits their needs can help to alleviate the kind of distractions that are more prevalent when students attend class in-person.
“Students and their families tell us they are coming here because they were feeling unsafe where they were before, and there was bullying, medical issues and severe anxiety,” she said. “Here there’s flexible scheduling and the opportunity to meet students living in completely different settings and with cultural differences.”
For those students who do have anxiety issues, Barber sees firsthand how online learning provides them and their families with opportunity to address these issues without any added health and safety concerns.
“Because students work in the safety of their homes it allows us to work through social anxiety issues, and it also means they are not exposed to additional health issues or safety issues,” Barber said. “Parents can easily monitor curriculum and access recordings to review materials.”
For all these reasons, cyber schools help demonstrate why “school choice” is important to Pennsylvania’s future, Barber said.
“Students are not forced to be a part of the local school if it does not best fit their educational needs to be successful,” she said.
While cyber schools continue to accommodate new students, they must also navigate their way through legislation that constrains available resources.
In March, Wolf signed off on Act 13 of 2020, which amended the School Code so schools could adjust to the challenges associated with COVID-19. The act waives the 180-day requirement for the current school year and instructs LEAS [local education agencies] to submit a “Continuity of Education” plan to the Department of Education.
But Act 13 also limits the ability of cyber charter schools to finance the growing appetite for the services because it prevents school districts from paying tuition for new students enrolled after March 13 and for the duration of the closure.
“Several of our schools are going to take a huge hit financially including brick and mortars that are seeing a surge given that they are now mandated to enroll during the closure, Ana Meyers, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said in an email.
“We represent one school, for instance, in Pittsburgh, New Academy CS [charter school], that educates a very difficult student population. These kids have serious behavior and attendance issues. They are seeing a surge in enrollment because some of the facilities where these types of kids are in are now closed so they are looking to enroll at New Academy and the school is being now mandated to enroll even if it creates a budgetary issue for them because they are not getting paid for these students.”
“Previously, our schools were going to do their very best to enroll as they feel they have a moral obligation to educate these kids, but if the numbers became too much to bear financially, they had the option to not enroll. They don’t have that option any longer due to the new guidance from PDE that came out after Act 13 became law. “
There are 15 cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania that serve students in 498 of the state’s 500 school districts, according to recent figures from the charter school coalition.
Barber, the Agora school teacher, sees a certain inconsistency at work on the part of some government officials.
“The government keeps talking about the need for education to be differentiated and that each child should be given what he or she needs in order to succeed,” she said. “Yet, they are demanding that children in the same neighborhoods all receive the same education in a school that may or may not be failing, but does not meet the needs of the child. I just don’t get it. Charter schools give parents the opportunity to give their kids something outside of the norm. How is a charter school not being considered as differentiation to meet the needs of our students?”
Kevin Mooney is an investigative reporter for the Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free-market think tank. He also writes for several national publications based in Washington, D.C.