Experience shows that there are many reasons to support school choice, from avoiding curriculum wars to pursuing academic excellence to adopting teaching methods and preferred times. But the past few years have also shown that relatively small schools, which rely on attracting families who can enroll and enroll as they please, are more flexible than traditional public schools in responding to crises.

From the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) examined how charter schools responded to the public health threat compared to traditional public schools. Looking at schools in California, New York, and Washington for March-June 2020 and then for the 2020-21 school year, researchers found that charters could move from classroom instruction to distance learning remarkably quickly.

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“Across multiple states and under varying conditions, the majority of charter schools we surveyed demonstrated resilience and creativity in responding to the physical and social challenges presented by COVID,” CREDO announced Feb. 15. "They reacted strongly and acted quickly to move to remote communication was highlighted as a priority. They assessed the technology needs of students and teachers and mobilized resources and contacts to distribute the technology and subsidize internet access.To help children learn, 83% of charter schools surveyed provided devices such as laptops, while 73% provided internet access.

Remarkably, in the spring of 2020, it took California charter schools an average of just four days to transition to remote learning after closing their doors over fears of contracting a virus. For charter flights in New York, the transition took an average of three days, for those in Washington on average two days. In contrast, "the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) found that nearly 70% of districts nationwide were not offering classes in spring 2020."

Charter schools have also been quick to shift to hybrid models that split student time between distance and face-to-face lessons. This gave children some of the benefits of face-to-face interaction while allowing for social distancing.

One of the challenges of transitioning to remote learning was ensuring students made the effort to register and take classes online. “Ninety-five percent of respondents in our study said they count daily touchpoints (interactions a day, logging in every day, or logging in at half of their classes) as present,” CREDO reported. Many traditional district schools are cutting attendance, at least in the early days of the pandemic.

Expectations also went the other way, as the charters demanded more of educators. Researchers report that "74% of charter schools expected teachers to teach during COVID-19 school closures, compared to only 47% of school districts."

This does not mean that charter schools have made a seamless transition in the pandemic environment. Schools reported that on average they only covered 86% of the English curriculum, 85% of math, 78% of science and 80% of social studies. Naturally, the students suffered. "Overall, the average percentage of students who experienced significant or significant academic loss was 43%, with 19% reporting significant academic loss." The study does not define what these losses were.

For context: At the end of the 2020-21 school year, the NWEA testing team reported that public school students were eight to 12 percentage points behind on math expectations and three six percentage points in reading. McKinsey also noted that pandemic-related disruptions "left students behind, on average, five months in math and four months in reading by the end of the school year."