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How charter schools are adapting amid the coronavirus outbreak

National Alliance of Public Charter Schools CEO Nina Rees joins Yahoo Finance’s Seana Smith to break down how charter schools are working to support their students as the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing many Americans to stay at home.

Video Transcript

SEANA SMITH: President Trump is saying that he still has faith that schools will reopen this fall. Dr. Fauci was basically questioning whether or not that timeline was realistic. I just want to get your thoughts about how are you preparing charter schools for the unknown at this point? And where do you think we stand in the process of making this decision?

NINA REES: Well, first of all, thank you so much for having me. This week happens to be National Charter Schools Week, which is the week that we use to highlight the contributions that charter schools have made to the greater public education landscape. Charter schools are public schools. There are 7,400 charter schools around the country in 45 states and in Washington, DC.

And so because each and every one of them are in different states, it's a little difficult to come up with a one-size-fits-all solution. Our advice to the field has been to heed the advice of local health officials and to make sure that they are on top of what the school districts and the traditional system is suggesting for schools to reopen.

With that said, charter schools also have a degree of autonomy and freedom in exchange for producing outcomes. So some of them, like Success Academy in New York, took the lead in closing its schools before the school district of New York City closed its schools. And so some of them are probably going to take the initiative to make some midcourse corrections ahead of time.

And a lot of them, quite frankly, were ahead of the curve in terms of responding to the needs of their community by making sure their students had access to the internet, that they had Chromebooks, and many of them were also able to make open-source content available for the larger school system.

SEANA SMITH: And Nina, I wanted to ask you about that, just in terms of how you're addressing this, because students-- they need extra support at this time. Learning from home is a new environment for not only the children, but also the teachers. So how are you supporting the students and navigating this unprecedented time, really even beyond just access to Wi-Fi and access to tablets, but helping the teachers teach in an extremely new environment for everyone?

NINA REES: Again, that's a great question. And as I mentioned, charter schools have a degree of autonomy to come up with innovations. And that kind of autonomy is crucial at a time like this where a lot of centralized bureaucracies have been a little bit slow to respond to the needs of their community.

What I will tell you in terms of what we've seen so far is that our larger networks have been able to offer online courses to their families. And in some instances, we've identified a set of schools that have also made that content available to the larger public school system, schools like Success Academy, Uncommon Schools, Gem Prep, which is based in Idaho.

So we're seeing a lot of innovation. And as you know, we have a very decentralized education system in this country, which means that 15,000 school districts are each making their own decisions, and there hasn't been a one-size-fits-all command-and-control structure in place to really advise schools on what they need to do, the way that some of the other countries that you mentioned have had in place.

And that makes the task challenging. But again, charter schools are a little bit ahead of the curve, in the sense that they can decide to do certain things on the own. If they wanted to continue to offer remote learning arrangements until it's safer for students to go back to school, for instance, that's definitely something that they have the option to do.

SEANA SMITH: Well, and you know, when you're discussing [INAUDIBLE] plan, budget-wise, for the next year and what exactly that would entail, the HEROES Act, which was just proposed by lawmakers in Congress, it includes funding to help provide Wi-Fi hotspots and other connected devices to students in need. But my question to you is, is the funding that's included in that-- is it enough?

NINA REES: Well, we actually put out a statement yesterday suggesting that the amount of money for the K12 portion of that bill is not as much as it should be. When you look at the budget shortfalls in literally every state, our schools are going to be tremendously hampered. And about 60% of charter school students are on the free and reduced lunch program.

These are students who had huge needs before the pandemic. They're going to have even more needs now that the pandemic and the impact of the pandemic is being felt. So we believe that more resources are going to be crucial in addressing this problem, and those resources really need to be sector-agnostic so that they are reaching students, especially vulnerable students, in the school that they're attending. And right now, a good portion of them are in charter schools.

SEANA SMITH: And Nina, that's interesting because I was reading an article from "The Washington Post" yesterday and they had an interesting article about funding for charter schools. And they were focusing on DC charter schools. They received federal aid through the PPP-- Paycheck Protection Program. And that actually drew some criticism from people out there. What is your response to some of the critics that are saying that charter schools should not be able to apply for loans through the PPP?

NINA REES: Well, charter schools are public schools, and but at the same time, we don't have the tax base of support that traditional school districts have. In many states, charter schools only receive about $0.70 of every dollar that follows students to a traditional school. So the school leader has to do quite a bit of fundraising to close that gap.

And the reason for that is because in many places, we don't have access to the bonds and the revenue streams that other schools have access to in order to purchase, lease, and renovate their buildings. That puts a lot of stress on charter schools, and so that's one of the reasons why many charter schools have considered applying for these loans from the Small Business Administration.

Charter schools are also a technically 501(c)(3) entities. So because the CARES Act opens the door for 501(c)(3)s to apply, a number of charter schools have considered applying. But our advice to the field has been, in each and every case, you have to consult with your attorney and make sure that you are, in fact, using the funds for the purposes that the Paycheck Protection Program was intended to support. And a great number of our schools have done just that.

SEANA SMITH: All right. Nina Rees, CEO of the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, thanks so much for joining us today.

NINA REES: Thanks for having me.