Pandemic forces closure of Florida private school for students with autism

Ron Matus

The Paragon School in Orlando focused on developing individualized academic plans for its students, establishing social skills, and building self-confidence.

Correction: This story has been updated to accurately reflect the number of Gardiner Scholarship students who attended the school in the 2019-20 school year. The number used in the original post, 106, was the sum total of annual scholarships used at the school.

 The coronavirus pandemic has forced the closure of another private school, a highly regarded Central Florida school that served students on the autism spectrum.

The Paragon School in Orlando announced its shutdown Tuesday, becoming the second school in Florida to fold in the wake of Covid-19 and one of more than 50 across the country.

“We are a school community that has been uniquely impacted by the pandemic, which has had a major effect on our enrollment and fundraising capabilities,” said the notice posted on the school’s web site. “We are now faced with the reality of being unable to create a workable budget with adequate staffing that will allow us to operate for the full 2020-2021 school year.”

“This was not a course of action that we came to lightly,” the statement continued. “We are aware of the important role that Paragon has played in the lives of our students and parents and we remain committed to helping support everyone in their search for the best educational setting for their child.”

The closing underscores the plight of private schools nationwide as enrollment drops, philanthropy dries up and uncertainty clouds what “school” will be in the fall. The recession is stripping away private school parents who can no longer afford tuition and/or no longer feel they’re getting the same sense of identity and community at schools that are now mostly or entirely online.

It’s unclear how many private schools may be vulnerable to closure, but thousands disappeared during the Great Recession. Last month, the National Catholic Education Association predicted more than 100 Catholic schools would shut down in coming months. In Florida, 58 percent of private schools responding to a survey from Step Up For Students said they worried about their viability in the fall. (Step Up is the nonprofit scholarship funding organization that hosts this blog.)

The Paragon School served students in K-12, including 20 last year who used Gardiner Scholarships for students with special needs. (The program is administered by Step Up.) It was founded by a couple who could not find a public or private school that they felt could serve their son with both strong academics and strong programs in behavior intervention and social development.

 News of Paragon’s closing brought a flood of emotional comments to its Facebook page.

“We are extremely saddened by this news,” one parent wrote. “As parents we were hit with that awful fear of the ‘unknown’ all while losing a part of the family. Paragon is our family.”

“For years Paragon has been a beacon of hope for families. A North Star guiding us to a place of comfort and peace,” wrote another. “As a Christian it is my belief that we will all reap what we sow in this life. How mighty will be the bounty for every single person involved in the incredible miracle that has been Paragon.”

So far, no meaningful government relief has been targeted to private schools beyond the forgivable, short-term PPP loans that were made available to small businesses and nonprofits. A coalition of private school and school choice organizations made a pitch last month for several potential remedies, including emergency tuition tax credits.

With another relief package potentially coming in July, stay tuned.

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