Clara Obermeier has loved the teachers in her Montgomery County, Md., school district, but she’s sending her two children to a private Catholic school this year.
When her school district first opted to reopen under a hybrid instructional model, Obermeier planned to work extra-long shifts at her engineering job while her two children attended school on in-person instruction days so she could stay home with them on the few days a week they would learn remotely.
But school district officials later changed course. After closing buildings in the spring to contain the spread of the coronavirus but then planning to reopen schools in the fall, the district recently decided to return to full-time remote learning for the entire first semester.
Hours after the district announced that decision, Obermeier enrolled her children in the private school run by her family’s church, and she knows of other families who’ve made similar moves.
“I think every parent right now is trying to minimize the amount of disruption they put their kids through,” Obermeier said, adding that neither she nor her husband could work from home and watch their kids, who are going into the 6th and 8th grades.“It is very anxiety inducing. Parents will go with what is least disruptive to them.”
Private school administrators around the country have sought to appeal to families navigating similar dilemmas, using targeted ads that detail careful cleaning practices and show photos of happy students in masks. To the concern of some education equity groups, private schools in many cities plan to open their buildings while public schools down the street remain fully or partially closed.
And, as more districts respond to spiking virus rates with plans for remote learning, some politicians who’ve long favored school choice have positioned private schools as an in-person alternative. Senate Republicans included funds for private schools in their latest coronavirus relief proposal, and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has said funds should “follow students,” allowing them to transfer to private schools if their public schools don’t open.
About 10 percent of U.S. students attend private schools in a typical year. But, even with all of the noise about private schools, it’s unclear if an unprecedented year for public schools will lead to the massive shift to private education some have envisioned.
In a survey released Aug. 3 by the University of Southern California Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research, 22 percent of respondents with K-12 students said they would change schools for the 2020-21 school year, a figure that includes those making expected switches, like progressing from elementary to middle school. But, of those who reported a school switch, 28 percent said the change is “somewhat” or “very much” influenced by experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The survey also found that respondents from higher income households, who are more capable of quickly enrolling their child in a private school, are less concerned about death or hospitalization from the virus and less likely to support remote learning than those with lower incomes.
Private schools have seen an uptick of inquiries from parents over the summer, “but there is no way to quantify that or predict how that is going to translate into actual enrollment over the next month and beyond,” Michael Schuttloffel, executive director for the Council of American Private Education, said in an email. “There is just so much uncertainty.”
Adding to that uncertainty: varying capacity of schools around the country, scuffles over who makes the call to temporarily close private school buildings due to COVID-19, and concerns about a potential second wave of the virus in the fall and winter that could affect public and private schools alike.
Uneven Access Is a Problem
Not every region is like Montgomery County, where Obermeier lives. The affluent area is home to prestigious private schools, including one attended by President Donald Trump’s youngest son, which does not plan to fully reopen at the beginning of the school year.
While much of the discussion of private school choice focuses on metropolitan areas, there’s uneven access to private schools around the country, said Matthew Chingos, the vice president for education data and policy at the Urban Institute.
In a 2017 analysis for the Brookings Institute, Chingos found 92 percent of households in urban areas had a private school within five miles of their homes, compared with 34 percent of those in rural areas.
And proximity doesn’t equal access, Chingos stressed.
“Maybe it’s a Catholic school and you aren’t Catholic,” he said.
Some private schools also have policies limiting admission for students based on factors like gender identity and sexual orientation, and some don’t provide special services for students with disabilities or other special learning needs.
That’s why some teachers’ unions and public education advocates have criticized the Trump administration’s private school choice push to include federal tax credits for private school scholarships, tutoring, and educational materials in the next federal coronavirus bill. They’ve also pushed back when governors in Florida, Oklahoma, and South Carolina directed federal coronavirus relief aid toward private school scholarships.
Capacity and Safety Concerns
There’s no national data on the capacity of private schools to take on new students, said Myra McGovern, the vice president of media for the National Association of Independent Schools. Capacity can be affected by factors such as local zoning laws, the need for new staff to support additional classes, and the ability to provide financial aid to students who need it.
Many private schools’ strength during the pandemic may also be their limitation, McGovern said. Smaller class sizes make it easier to spread desks far apart, complying with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But keeping classes small means limiting new enrollment, even amid a surge in interest.
In an early June poll, 44 percent of NAIS members said they had extended their enrollment deadline this year to help newly interested families explore their options. But it’s not yet clear if that has converted to new enrollment.
In addition to size, private schools can make decisions about facilities and operations without answering to teachers’ unions and without concern for consistency across a large school system.
“There is a lot more flexibility,” McGovern said. “But the … unique challenges are so different.”
As part of a forceful push by the Trump administration to encourage schools—public and private—to reopen their buildings, Vice President Mike Pence and DeVos made a July 29 visit to Thales Academy, a year-round private school in Apex, N.C., that is part of a small system of private schools founded by Republican donor Bob Luddy.
“The one thing that we know, studying the data from around America and around the world, is the risk the coronavirus poses to healthy children is very low,” Pence said. “And we believe that with the right measures in place, we can safely operate our schools, just as you’re doing here at this great private school in North Carolina.”
Highlighting schools like Apex as a model, the Trump administration supports a GOP plan to condition two thirds of proposed new relief aid for education on physical reopening of school buildings.
But, even as they’ve stressed the importance of getting students back into classrooms, Trump and CDC Director Robert Redfield have said schools in “hotspots” may have to delay or rethink opening. Redfield defined hotspots as local areas where at least 5 percent of COVID-19 tests come back positive. And, while children are less likely to have severe cases of the virus, researchers are still studying how they spread it to others who may be more vulnerable.
In Wake County, N.C., where Thales is located, the testing positivity rate was 7 percent on Aug. 4, according to the most recent state data. Concerns about the virus prompted the Wake County district to begin the year with remote instruction.
The weekend after that announcement, Thales received about 500 applications, administrator Hilary Herman-Pagliolo said.
“Our admissions got to the point where we had to turn off our applications because we couldn’t handle the influx,” she said.
As safety precautions for openings, the school has spaced desks further apart, plans to frequently sanitize equipment and classrooms, and will comply with a state directive by requiring all students over age 11 to wear masks. About 20 percent of Thales students opted to continue learning remotely, Herman-Pagliolo said.
At Lakeview Christian Academy in Duluth, Minn., small class sizes of eight to 15 students made it easy to comply with a state guideline of filling classrooms to less than 50 percent of capacity, Head of School Aaron Walls said.
“We are going to look at those state mandates and figure out which ones best apply to us in our situation,” he said.
But a private school’s pledge to open its building is not a pledge to keep it open. About a week after Pence’s visit, for example, administrators asked a 4th grade class at a separate Thales Academy location, in Wake Forest, to quarantine for 14 days after a classmate tested positive for COVID-19. And some private schools acknowledge that a return to full-building closures is not out of the question.
In the spring, most private schools opted to close voluntarily as governors ordered mass closures of public schools, though some state leaders included private schools in their mandates.
Lawsuit Filed to Keep Private Schools Open
Even before the school year has started in many places, private schools have sparred with state and local leaders over who has the authority to close their buildings if virus concerns reemerge.
Obermeier, the Montgomery County mother, joined other parents in suing in federal court after county officials ordered private schools closed due to their concerns about the virus. That shutdown order drew condemnation from Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, who had previously deferred to county officials when they wanted to set restrictions on restaurants and retail stores that were more stringent than the state’s.
“There has been no outbreak or particular public health emergency focused on nonpublic schools in Montgomery County to prompt this order,” that lawsuit says. “Instead, it appears to be a political response, an answer to complaints by some public school parents about ‘why their schools are closed and private schools are not.’”
In California, which has seen surging virus rates in recent months, schools must meet certain requirements to re-open to in-person instruction. Catholic schools there have been in compliance with that order, said Mary Pat Donoghue, the director of the Secretariat of Catholic Education at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Around the country, Catholic dioceses have advised their schools to comply with CDC recommendations and to work with state and local officials on reopening, she said, but they’ve stressed the importance of physical reopening plans where they are possible.
That was the draw for Obermeier, whose children have played sports in a Catholic league with fellow students at their new school. The school’s classrooms open to the outside, reducing crowding in hallways. And school offices are equipped with plexiglass shields to protect employees.
She doesn’t know if her family’s shift will be permanent or for a year. She acknowledges that changing circumstances may mean a return to distance learning later in the year, but she thinks her plan is worth a try.
“Under the circumstances, we will make any sacrifices to make sure that we provide our kids with the best education we can,” she said.
Coverage of strategies for advancing the opportunities for students most in need, including those from low-income families and communities, is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonk12.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the August 26, 2020 edition of Education Week as Private Schools Catch Parents’ Eye As Public School Buildings Stay Shut