School Choice & Charters

Where Private Schools Stand on Coronavirus Closures

By Mark Walsh — March 22, 2020 4 min read
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There were some 114,000 U.S. public and private schools closed by coronavirus concerns as of Friday, with 45 states ostensibly having ordered all schools to close temporarily. Educators, parents, and students are adapting to a new reality of distance learning and disruption for the time being.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t outliers, especially among private schools.

At Cornerstone Christian Academy in Statesville, N.C., the campus itself has remained open, and about one third of the pre-K-12 enrollment of 165 students have opted to go to the school, while the rest last week began taking advantage of the academy’s distance-learning alternatives.

“I know we’re a rare bird right now,” Renee Griffith, the principal of the private school about 45 miles north of Charlotte, said in an interview on March 20. “It’s not a pushback against the government. It’s just what we felt was best for the parents that we serve.”

Educators say there have been pockets across the country where private schools remained open, at least until governors issue orders requiring all schools to close.

In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, had deferred to local authorities in recent weeks on the issues of closing schools and businesses. But on March 19, he signed an executive order closing public and private schools through April 3.

“This is a very rapidly spreading disease, but it’s one we are prepared to respond to,” Abbott said at a virtual town hall that evening.

Laura Colangelo, the executive director of the Texas Private Schools Association, said many of her group’s 876 members were following guidance of local health authorities and closing only when the COVID-19 virus was present in their communities.

“That was happening in Dallas, Houston, East Texas, and El Paso,” but not everywhere, she said. “A blanket closure makes more sense in a smaller state than in a state as big as Texas.”

But she expected her group’s members, which include Roman Catholic parochial schools, other Christian and religious schools, independent schools, Montessori schools, preschools, and others, to comply with Abbott’s order.

“The general sentiment is we’re all in this together,” said Colangelo.

Myra McGovern, the vice president of media for the National Association of Independent Schools, said many of the 1,900 schools in her group made the decision to close even before their local governments did. The Washington-based group represents nonprofit, independently governed private schools and includes many of the nation’s most elite boarding and day schools.

“In most cases the schools did not have any exposure to the virus, but they felt [closing] was the right move for the broader community,” said McGovern.

Steve Lindquist, the director of accreditation for the Association of Christian Teachers & Schools, a Brandon, Fla.-based group that represents some 200 schools in 35 states, said most of those have closed in compliance with government orders.

“We have counseled our schools to follow whatever their state guidelines are out of prudence and precaution,” he said.

Some schools are “a little more conservative in their approach to this, measuring hysteria against continuing to operate,” Lindquist said. “Being a school of choice, they want to make sure they’re doing what their clientele expects of them.”

Still, he said he was aware of only two of his group’s schools that were still holding school on campus, and they were operating in compliance with government guidance on gathering size.

‘Just a Recommendation’

One of the two was Cornerstone Christian, the North Carolina academy.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, issued an executive order on March 14 closing all public schools in the state temporarily and barred gatherings of more than 100 people. But the school-closure part of the order didn’t apply to private schools.

North Carolina’s Division of Non-Public Education, which is situated in the state department of administration rather than the department of public instruction, has this message on its website: “DNPE recommends that private schools follow the guidance issued by the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], the NC Department of Health and Human Services, and the Governor. It is recommended that gatherings of 50 or more people be discontinued. It is the discretion of each private school to decide how to proceed with instruction.”

Griffith, the principal of Cornerstone Christian, said that while 84 students showed up this past Monday, the numbers have been in the 50s and 60s the rest of the week. The campus has multiple buildings, and once students are in their classrooms, the numbers are generally close to the limit of 10 people per gathering recommended by the federal government.

“The federal guideline is just a recommendation,” she said. “If the federal government mandated that we close down, we would do that.”

For now, Cornerstone Christian is proceeding with one-third of its enrollment still coming to school.

Griffith emphasized that staff members are taking the temperature of anyone who enters the facility and is being especially diligent with sanitizing surfaces.

“It’s working well,” Griffith said. “It seems that for the moment we have made every parent happy because they feel this is the best place for their child.”

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.