In the Same Towns, Private Schools Are Reopening While Public Schools Are Not

Laveta Brigham

Punahou School in Honolulu, on Mach 9, 2007, will be open full time in the fall of 2020, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. (Cory Lum/The New York Times) In Honolulu, nearly all public schools are planning to allow students to return for just part of the week. But […]

Punahou School in Honolulu, on Mach 9, 2007, will be open full time in the fall of 2020, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. (Cory Lum/The New York Times)
Punahou School in Honolulu, on Mach 9, 2007, will be open full time in the fall of 2020, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. (Cory Lum/The New York Times)

In Honolulu, nearly all public schools are planning to allow students to return for just part of the week. But at Punahou, a private school for grades kindergarten through 12, school will open full time for everyone.

The school has an epidemiologist on staff and is installing thermal scanners in the hallways to take people’s temperatures as they walk by. It has a new commons area and design lab as well as an 80-acre campus that students can use to spread out. There were already two teachers for 25 children, so it will be easy to cut classes in half to meet public health requirements for small, consistent groups.

The same thing is happening in communities across the country: Public schools plan to open not at all or just a few days a week, while many neighboring private schools are opening full time.

Private schools may reverse course if there are outbreaks in their communities, and governors could still shut down all schools if they determine that local infection rates call for it. Some families and teachers won’t feel comfortable returning. But the ways in which private schools are reopening show it can be done with creative ideas — and the money to carry them out.

Public schools, which serve roughly 90% of American children, tend to have less money, larger class sizes and less flexibility to make changes to things like the curriculum, facilities or workforce.

“The virus is this huge stress test on our education system,” said Robert Pianta, dean of the school of education at the University of Virginia. “It has exposed a great deal of inequity, and we are going to see this only exacerbated in the coming months, not years. Certain kids in certain systems, depending on the resources, are going to get much closer to what looks like a typical high-quality education than others.”

Gretchen Hoff Varner, a lawyer in Alameda, California, and the mother of two elementary schoolers who will go to school part time this fall, said public school educators had done a heroic job with what they have. But the fact that they cannot fully open while independent schools can, she said, represents “a failure of political will and resources.”

“If we were a country interested in saving schools the same way we’ve saved airlines and banks, then this is a problem we could solve,” said Hoff Varner, who was the PTA president at her children’s school last year.

Some public districts have developed plans to open full time for most students. They include smaller, wealthier suburban districts as well as urban ones like those in Durham, North Carolina, and Charlottesville, Virginia.

But overall, fall reopening plans are just another way the pandemic has widened gaps in education. Private schools were able to offer much more robust online learning last spring, and research suggests that school closures have widened achievement gaps. Now, as private schools move forward with reopening plans, it’s the children who most need to attend in-person school — those lacking the necessary technology for online learning, or with parents unequipped to oversee it — who tend to be the least likely to do so.

The biggest challenge for schools is how to maintain physical distance, as required by guidelines from state governments and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most countries in which schools have opened after reducing infection levels and imposing distancing measures have not had outbreaks.

It generally means capping classes at around a dozen. Public school buildings in the United States are often old, with small classrooms, cramped hallways and outdated ventilation systems. Independent schools (private schools not run by a for-profit company or religious organization) are more likely to have smaller class sizes to begin with and money to hire additional teachers.

Public schools faced a funding crisis even before the pandemic. K-12 schools received $13.5 billion from the federal coronavirus relief package in March (although Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has required that it be shared with private schools). School officials and education policy researchers say that the money was not nearly enough and that because states are facing budget shortfalls because of lockdowns, schools would need a huge federal infusion of cash to reopen for all students. An average district with 3,700 students and eight buildings would need to spend an additional $1.8 million on health and safety measures, a report estimated.

“There’s a giant hole in state and local tax revenue due to not bringing in money over the past months,” said Sarah Cohodes, an associate professor of economics and education at Teachers College at Columbia. “Schools need more money. The money needs to come tomorrow. There’s no way anything can happen without the money.”

Punahou has spent $3 million on health, technology and hiring in response to the pandemic and has increased its financial aid by 50%, to $12 million, so families who are suffering financially because of the pandemic can still enroll.

“We’ve been very fortunate in this respect that our donors and our alumni have been able to give us additional money to make that possible,” said Mike Latham, Punahou’s president.

Size makes a difference, too. When Justin Guerra, a sixth-grade English teacher at the Athenian School in Danville, California, taught public school, he had three times as many students as he has now. He is comfortable returning to the classroom when Athenian opens, given the new safety measures in place, but said he was sympathetic to public schoolteachers’ fears about returning.

“It’s such painful mixed emotions,” he said. “Remote learning is freaking hard — the amount of work that goes into it for the return you get is painful. You want to be with the kids; it’s the reason to do this job. At the same time, safety is our priority, and I don’t know the guilt we could carry if someone in our community got sick or died.”

Another key difference for private schools, said Mike Walker, the head of school at San Francisco Day, is flexibility. Independent schools don’t have all the same regulations for the curriculum or facilities that public schools have, and teachers generally are not unionized. They also have smaller student bodies, with less diverse needs.

The school decided to focus on bringing younger students back full time — because distance learning doesn’t work as well for them and it’s a crucial period for learning social skills — and junior high students part time. Although some teachers are anxious about returning, Walker said, they are trying to meet teachers’ individual needs.

“We’re nonunionized and really want to stay that way,” he said. “There’s a different ethos, a different culture. I chose to work in a smaller system because I think we can make decisions more quickly.”

When the San Francisco Unified School District said this month that it would probably be unable to open schools in the fall, “it raised really considerable issues of equity,” he said. “It breaks our heart.”

Public schools typically don’t have the resources that private schools do, and certain things, like the size of public districts, will always be different. But other changes are within policymakers’ or administrators’ control, researchers said.

Schools could consider using libraries, community centers, empty office buildings, churches or parks, Cohodes said. Teachers may need to teach a different grade or subject for a year. Unemployed young people could tutor or monitor recess or small group activities.

And, she said, communities could make a public health push, conducting lockdowns, testing and contact tracing to bring the virus under control before schools opened.

Andrew Saultz, director of the education and leadership program at Pacific University, said, “I think the way to do it politically is to make it about equity: This is good for low-socioeconomic students and students of color.”

The Durham public school system in North Carolina has made plans to open full time for pre-K through eighth grade. High schoolers would be remote unless they had special learning needs. It’s a large, urban district, with 33,000 students in 53 schools, 60% of whom receive free or reduced-price lunch.

The district, which began planning for fall in April, would use the empty high schools for extra space and reassign some teachers. Families could choose to attend online, and teachers could teach remotely if they had medical issues. The district used money from the federal coronavirus relief act for laptops and a new remote curriculum, and has largely relied on local philanthropy from high-tech businesses and universities in the area.

“We recognize that working families depend on the benefits of in-person instruction, social-emotional support and food,” said William Sudderth III, known as Chip, the chief communications officer for the district. “This is our effort to provide the best possible education for our students in a situation that is far from the best possible.”

The reopening is not assured, though: This week, a Durham teachers group requested that schools stay closed while coronavirus is still spreading.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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