Private school leaders react to news of continued public school closure

Lisa Buie

Schools in 31 states, including Florida, have announced that schools will remain closed for the remainder of the school year. Chart: Council of Chief State School Officers

Leaders at several Florida private schools greeted with relief Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decision to keep public school campuses closed and continue distance learning for the rest of the academic year due to possible effects of COVID-19.

The governor’s announcement came over the weekend amid pressure from advocates on both sides of the issue.

“We think it was the best decision under the circumstances,” said Chris Pastura, superintendent of schools for the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, which includes 47 schools and centers that serve 43,000 students in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties. Many students receive state scholarships administered by Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog.

Pastura said reopening campuses would have been “an administrative nightmare” if even one student, parent or staff member had become infected with the virus.

“We would then have to look at closing more than one school,” he said, based on whether the infected person had siblings at another school or whether another one of the diocese’s schools was located close to the school where the case occurred.

DeSantis said in his announcement that his decision came after consulting with educators and parents.

“The last thing that we’re going to do is force everyone in school and have half the kids not show up with their parents,” he said. “And then teachers will not want to do it.” 

Florida now joins 30 other states that have closed brick-and-mortar schools until August or September.

The governor’s decision came two days after President Donald Trump released federal guidelines that included a three-phase plan but no timelines, leaving specifics to each state’s governor. However, those guidelines recommended that school buildings remain closed during the first phase.

DeSantis had said on April 9 that he saw value in reopening school campuses in May, even if only for two weeks. That statement prompted public school educators across the state to begin making reopening plans, although some private school leaders said they would make their own decisions. Among options they considered were staggered schedules to allow for social distancing, a combination of distance learning and physical attendance, requiring masks and instituting enhanced disinfection procedures.

Now, private school leaders say, they will focus on making the best of the distance learning programs they launched in mid-March and have worked to improve.

“Teaching remotely has its challenges and requires accommodations, applied sometimes daily for some students to make it work,” said Kim Kuruzovich, executive director for LiFT Academy. “But we are keeping our students and staff safe while meeting virtually face to face.”

The school, about 25 miles west of Tampa, serves 140 students in K-12, 96 percent of whom attend on private school scholarships. Of those, 48 participate in the Gardiner Scholarship Program for students with unique abilities. Two receive a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.

Kuruzovich said feedback from parents has been positive, and that school leaders have begun considering options for summer and the start of the 2020-21 school year.

“There is a desire by staff and parents to err on the side of caution and not rush to go back to what we had before without first seeing where we are with the coronavirus,” Kuruzovich said. “Most importantly, as with every school is to do what keeps all of us safe and moving forward academically.” 

Stacy Angier, principal at Abundant Life Christian Academy, said she understands the reasons behind the decision but is disappointed for families. The school, which serves students in grades K-11 in hard-hit Broward County, was among the first in the state to pivot to virtual education and has worked hard to keep students engaged while online.

On Thursday, Abundant Life will host a virtual school pep rally for its 462 students, 234 of whom attend on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.

Meanwhile, plans for a virtual kindergarten graduation are underway, Angier said. The ceremony will take place via video, complete with individual photos of each child in cap and gown.

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