When the COVID-19 pandemic forced brick-and-mortar schools to shutter buildings, Pittsburgh Public Schools rushed to find technology and funding to transition thousands of students to remote learning. At the end of the school year, some students still went without the needed technology. Computer and iPad distribution will continue throughout the summer, a district spokeswoman recently said.

At cyber charter schools across Pennsylvania, the transition was less chaotic.

Home lives were changed, but for the most part, school operations remained the same. Students at cyber charters were already, in many ways, set up for online learning during a pandemic.

Though the operations of cyber charters faced less interruption, they were still eligible for millions in aid through Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief [ESSER] funding the state received in May through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security [CARES] Act.

Across Pennsylvania, cyber charter schools were eligible to receive $9,543,264 of CARES Act funding, according to data from the state’s Department of Education. Statewide, cyber charters enrolled 38,266 students in the 2019-20 school year, according to state data. About 33,900 of these students attend cyber charter schools which will receive COVID-19 aid.

The U.S. Department of Education approved $523.8 million in CARES Act funding to Pennsylvania through the ESSER Fund. Of this, the state’s Department of Education said about $471.4 million of the funds must go directly to school districts and charter schools, based on the formula used for 2019 Title I-A allocations. Schools applied to the state’s department of education for their portion of funding.

Some parents and public school advocates have criticized the funding going to cyber charter schools, noting that already-virtual cyber operations meant little-to-no disruption, while brick-and-mortar schools — many already in dire need — struggled to get technology essential for remote learning. Some say that this additional funding to charters will deepen an already existing inequity between public schools and charter schools, including cyber charters.

PublicSource contacted all of the state’s 11 cyber charters that are expected to receive CARES Act funding with multiple requests for interviews; three spoke with us for this story.

Brian Hayden was surprised to learn Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School was eligible for more than $2.3 million in ESSER funding. Hayden is CEO of PA Cyber Charter, the state’s oldest and largest cyber charter school, founded in 2000, with about 10,800 students.

Though he acknowledges they haven’t faced the same challenges as brick-and-mortar schools, he says that, “we’ve had to adapt like everybody else has been.”

“A lot of our work has been working with the home life situation to make sure that both all of our employees and all of our students can balance those out,” Hayden said. “And that the employees can work and the students can learn and the experience remains the same.”

Hayden said they’re eyeing spending aid money on technological upgrades to accommodate the changed environment: “A better integrated communication system, to communicate with everybody, all at the same time.”

They’re also, “delving into what we think we need in terms of mental health and psychological services for our students,” he said.

Ali Patterson, who has four children at different Pittsburgh Public Schools, along with a recent PPS graduate, said that the money from the CARES Act “should have been going to traditional public and charter schools that had needs that could not have been predicted that were specifically caused by the coronavirus crisis,” noting technological needs and mental health support services. Pittsburgh Public Schools received $11,146,817 in aid funding for its 22,859 students.

Deirdre Patterson, Ali’s daughter, will be a fourth grader next year at Pittsburgh Linden K-5. (Courtesy photo)
Deirdre Patterson, Ali’s daughter, will be a fourth grader next year at Pittsburgh Linden K-5. (Courtesy photo)

District spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said that while the District hasn’t decided how, specifically, it will spend funding, “areas districts may consider include professional development, educational technology for students, mental health services and supports, and efforts to address to the unique needs of students.”

Susan Spicka, executive director at Education Voters PA, a nonprofit public education advocacy organization, echoed that and said “there’s not enough money in the current system for public education, for charter schools to be receiving excess funding and wasting it on things that aren’t educating kids.”

Spicka said brick-and-mortars have maintenance staff who must be paid to sanitize, buildings which need to be heated, roofs which need to be replaced, and cafeterias and libraries which need to be staffed. “[Cyber charters] just don’t have the same expenses.”

“There are going to be a lot of school districts that are going to struggle to open their doors this fall,” she said.

According to the state’s department of education website, funds may be used for various COVID-19 related things, including to coordinate preparedness and response efforts, to address the unique needs of low-income children and children with disabilities, to purchase educational technology and to provide staff and students with mental health services and support.

“When you add money on top of an inequitable system, you just exacerbate inequity,” said James Fogarty, executive director of the A+ Schools advocacy group. “And that’s not to say that children in cyber charters don’t deserve some amount of additional funding or support. I just don’t know that we as a commonwealth have had an adequate conversation to say what that amount should be.”

Fogarty said that there’s a “significant need for state funding reform” of the Legislature around the formula which determines funding for schools.

“Such that our district schools have the funds they need to adequately serve the kids … that they have,” he said. “To me, the equity issue is around, like, do you have what you need to be able to serve the children you have?”

A long-standing lawsuit, filed in 2014, on behalf of Pa. school districts, parents and advocacy groups accuses the state of failing to provide its public schools with adequate and equitable funding, forcing districts to heavily rely on local taxpayers. The lawsuit was dismissed by the Pennsylvania courts in 2015 then revived in 2017 by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The case is ongoing before Commonwealth Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer.

The Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School is headquartered in Midland, Pa. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)
The Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School is headquartered in Midland, Pa. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Hayden said that while his cyber charter students didn’t physically leave school on a Friday and have to log in to learn remotely on Monday, “In terms of, their concern about their safety and their family’s safety, and the potential impacts of unemployment, the disruption in the household and all of that, our students are as much impacted by that as any student would be,” he said. Having additional funds, “to address some of those issues is, I think, valid and it’s important.”

At Reach Cyber Charter School, the transition was “almost seamless,” according to Jane Swan, the school’s CEO. Reach Cyber, which opened in 2016, has about 3,800 students and about 360 staff members. Reach Cyber will receive $728,580 in funding.

She echoed Hayden’s sentiment that most of the transition was within students’ and teachers’ home lives.

“Families, of course, were home,” she said. “People lost jobs, health issues, all of those kind of things. So we scaled back a little bit with our requirements for students … and then just continued to ramp up.”

“We have the same responsibility to our employees and our students who use the facilities,” Swan said.

Seamless transition or not, Swan said she’s still “very thankful” for the additional funding, “because we will be able to use it for a number of things.”

Swan said school leaders intend to use the funding on office cleaning and maintenance of administrative buildings, the cost of which they anticipate to be high, hiring additional summer staff, and instructional interventions.

“That could be anything from an actual person delivering intervention, math, reading online face to face on the computer,” she said. “Or it could be programs that we are also purchasing to use for intervention to kind of fill those gaps for students.

Patricia Rossetti, CEO of Pennsylvania Distance Learning Charter School, said in an email that they haven’t decided how they will spend the entirety of their $213,815 in funds, but they plan to hire three teachers to support special education, elementary, and secondary students in any loss of learning that occurred during the spring and summer.

They’re also considering training for staff, and supplies, training, and resources for our special education contractors working in the homes of our students.

Update (6/29/2020): This story was updated to include additional information on cyber enrollment.

TyLisa C. Johnson covers education for PublicSource. She can be reached at tylisa@publicsource.org.

This story was fact-checked by Emma Folts.

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TyLisa C. Johnson is the Audience Engagement Editor at PublicSource. She’s passionate about telling compelling human stories that intersect with complex issues affecting marginalized groups. Before joining...