Private Schools Grapple With Reopening Plans

Some schools will wait. Some will move ahead with plans to open in August. But all private schools are wrestling with the task of keeping teachers and students safe during a pandemic.

Last week, Dallas County officials issued an order banning on-campus instruction until after Labor Day, citing the sustained increase in daily cases of COVID-19, and the rising hospitalizations.

“Given the recent numbers it really is imperative that  we must do what is best for the safety of our school children and school employees,” Dallas County Health and Human Services Director Dr. Philip Huang said.

The order still allows for distance learning. Huang stressed that his department wasn’t saying Sept. 8 was a “magic number,” but instead that the data indicates that it won’t be safe to resume in-person instruction at that point. Both Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins and Huang reiterated that the situation was fluid, and would be based on the data and what an advisory group of experts recommended.

Two weeks before any district or school wants to begin in-person instruction, it must submit its plan to the health department for approval, and also share it with parents and the public.

School-sponsored activities are also banned until in-person instruction starts, including sports.

For some private schools, the mandate means that they are pivoting to an already planned for possibility – distance learning – for least the first few weeks of school. Greenhill will begin instruction on August 25 and Hockaday will move its orientation week to online during the week of August 24 and the school will begin online instruction the following week.

“Our hope is that restrictions will be lifted so that we can resume on-campus learning as soon as possible,” said David W. Dini, Eugene McDermott Headmaster at St. Mark’s. “Throughout the summer, we have been planning for both on and off-campus instruction in order to be prepared to respond to the changing circumstance. Clearly, we are eager to have boys back on campus as soon as possible for in-person learning and continue to make active preparations in that regard. At the same time, we will closely follow public health guidance and expectations to support the safety and well-being of our students, teachers, and professional staff.”

But not all schools are subject to the order, according to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who, the same day, sent a letter to religious private schools telling them they were not bound by it.

The letter told school administrators that local public health orders couldn’t pertain to religious schools, because that violated the United States and Texas Constitutions and the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act. 

“Moreover, local orders seeking to restrict the reopening of religious private schools or institutions is inconsistent (sic) with Governor Abbott’s executive orders, and therefore, are invalid,” Paxton’s press release said. 

“As the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed just last week, there are robust constitutional and statutory protections unique to religious individuals and communities, specifically including religious private schools,” Paxton said in a statement. “In accordance with the protections granted by the First Amendment and Texas law, this guidance allows religious private schools to determine for themselves when to reopen free from any government mandate or interference.”

But not every school that could avail themselves of Paxton’s guidance is choosing to do so. 

“Though the guidelines on July 17 declare that ‘religious schools’ can open, over the orders of local government and health officials, we have determined that for the health and safety of our community and to better align with our local independent peer schools with whom we share many families, we will honor the Dallas County Health Department’s order,” said Heather Mills, a spokesperson with Parish Episcopal School. “As such, when school begins on Thursday, August 27, Parish will operate in its From a Distance platform until we are able to resume face-to-face instruction. Our phased reopening strategy, once granted permission by the Local Health Authority to do so, is to begin on-campus programming under the Parish Blended/Hybrid platform, where our students will alternate between on-campus instruction and virtual, synchronous instruction.”

 Obviously, it is our deepest desire to return to normal campus activity and we look forward to a time when we can all be together once again; however, COVID-19 remains a serious issue, and the health and safety of our community members is our highest priority,” she added.

Episcopal School of Dallas has taken a similar approach, telling parents and students on its website that instruction would begin online on August 25, and they were planning for on-campus instruction to begin after Labor Day.

“As we remain in a global pandemic, we have three primary goals: Keep our community members as safe and healthy as possible; deliver on our mission of academic rigor, daily worship, and experiences in community;communicate clearly, including training, expectations, and other protocols,” the school website said.

Ursuline Academy of Dallas said it was taking into account the guidance from the Diocese of Dallas Office of Catholic Schools and our Independent Schools Association of the Southwest when crafting its back-to-school plans.

Student orientation will take place August 18-21 by grade level, and students will be grouped into cohorts. Some of the orientation will be in person, and other parts online.

Classes will start on August 24, with the model being either hybrid (a combination of distance and on-campus learning) or all distance.

“We understand the seriousness of community spread of COVID-19 as articulated by Dallas County Health and Human Services (DCHHS), and we have confidence that our protocols for reopening are aligned with those guidelines,” the school’s website said. “And we have kept in mind the importance of our students’ mental health, with guidance provided by the American Academy of Pediatrics for these uncertain times.

“We will closely monitor our protocols and practices to meet the standards of care our students and families expect from Ursuline.”

Jesuit Preparatory said in a letter to parents that it was evaluating its next steps, but that it did not intend to move its August 19 start date.

“We have been eagerly anticipating starting the year with on-campus learning, and as detailed in my previous letter, have put protocols in place for a safe return to campus. We are reviewing our options and seeking further clarification as we consider the best path forward for our students and their families, faculty and staff,” the letter from school president Michael Earsing said. “Our goal is to be on campus, but please be advised that whether we begin with a hybrid of both in-person and eLearning or must start the academic year online, we do not intend to change our start date.

“Administrators, teachers, and staff will be expected to follow all health and safety protocols while on campus, but will be allowed to facilitate the on-line learning process from their regular classrooms and offices.”

However, the Catholic Diocese of Dallas announced Tuesday that it would reopen all its schools in Dallas County for on-campus instruction, possibly as early as Sept. 2.

Superintendent Matt Vereecke said that school leaders have been meeting with the Diocese and medical experts to craft plans and protocols to keep students and staff safe, adding that public schools face different issues than the Catholic private schools face.

“Diocesan schools have smaller classes, different facilities and more flexibility to adapt to the current health concerns,” Vereecke told Texas Catholic. “We have come to the conclusion that we can absolutely open our schools in person, and that we can keep our teachers, students and staff safe. Human life is sacred, and as Catholics we have a responsibility to protect it from conception to natural death, and we firmly believe these protocols will do so.”

Schools in the Diocese that are not in Dallas County could open for on-campus instruction as early as August 19. Elementary schools in Dallas County can start as early as September 2. Parents can choose remote learning if they feel the safety protocols in place don’t meet their family’s needs.

“We will be constantly reviewing these procedures and monitoring our schools,” Vereecke said. “We are thankful for the partnership, trust and patience of parents, and look forward to seeing students in the fall.”

Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson, deputy editor at People Newspapers, cut her teeth on community journalism, starting in Arkansas. Recently, she's taken home a few awards for her writing, including a Gold award for Best Series at the 2018 National Association of Real Estate Editors journalism awards, a 2018 Hugh Aynesworth Award for Editorial Opinion from the Dallas Press Club, and a 2019 award from NAREE for a piece linking Medicaid expansion with housing insecurity. She doesn't like lima beans, black licorice or the word synergy. You can reach her at [email protected].

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