IN MID-FEBRUARY 2020, Antonio Roca's team at the education-management company Academica started to get some disturbing reports from the firm's Milan branch. It appeared that the virus ravaging Wuhan, China, had made its way to Northern Italy. This menace wasn't going to stay contained for long. Could it make it to the States? The team should probably prepare.
Roca is the managing director for the virtual education division of Academica, a large U.S.-based education service provider. The company manages 200 brick-and-mortar charter schools in 11 states, serving some 125,000 students. Via online instruction, it serves an additional 20,000 students in 11 countries, including Italy. It is one of the for-profit charter-school companies that left-leaning education activists have set their sights on.
The 2020 Democratic Party platform promises a ban on all federal funding for for-profit charter schools, explaining that "education is a public good and should not be saddled with a private profit motive." In May 2020, more than 200 activists, including Diane Ravitch, Jonathan Kozol, Danny Glover, and Michael Moore, signed an open letter to presidential candidate Joe Biden calling for an outright prohibition on such schools.
A look at Academica's response to the Covid-19 crisis might temper some of that distrust.
In early March, the company surveyed parents of its on-campus students, hoping to identify potential problems with student Internet access and hurdles that the firm would need to overcome to move instruction online. Staff developed both hard-copy and digital resources (in English, Spanish, and French) and distributed thousands of devices to students on campus before schools had to close.
On Friday, March 13, the first group of Academica schools closed in South Florida. The company trained 5,000 teachers via videoconferencing. The videoconferencing tools had already been vetted for security via the firm's Colegia platform, a central hub of educational applications, content, and communications that Academica had created to ensure continuity of live instruction. Luckily, many of its schools were slated to be on spring break the following week, buying the staff time to train the rest of the teachers.
On Monday, March 16, the first tranche of Academica schools reopened online, with the rest reopening as they came back from spring break. For the remainder of the school year, Academica offered at least four hours of remote live instruction per day. Students reported online at the usual school start time, wearing their school uniforms. Academica created professional-learning communities for teachers to work together to navigate the obstacles that emerged during the pandemic. It developed online tools that offered confidential meeting rooms for pullout services and direct instruction for students with special needs. It continuously surveyed parents and tracked attendance every day. In late April, the company was seeing 94 percent attendance, a better rate than in its traditional brick-and-mortar schools.
When the Center on Reinventing Public Education tracked a set of 82 public school districts last spring, it found that 27 of them--one third--did "not set consistent expectations for teachers to provide meaningful remote instruction" during the...