News: CJ Exclusives

Private K-12 schools don’t have to wait for Cooper’s reopening order

St. Timothy's School in Raleigh is preparing for a new school year under COVID-19 restrictions. (CJ photo by Don Carrington)
St. Timothy's School in Raleigh is preparing for a new school year under COVID-19 restrictions. (CJ photo by Don Carrington)

While public schools wait for Gov. Roy Cooper to decide how classes will look this year, private schools are finalizing plans for reopening. 

Unlike traditional public schools, private schools — which aren’t subject to the same rules — have more leeway in deciding how to reopen. 

The state is requiring all school districts to develop reopening plans for the 2020-21 school year, always with COVID-19 in mind. Traditional public schools and charter schools will follow whichever plan the Cooper administration picks. The governor was supposed to announce a plan for schools July 1, but he punted. During a news conference July 9, Cooper said he wouldn’t make a school announcement until this week.

Private schools don’t have to wait on Cooper.

The Division of Non-Public Education gives private schools discretion in choosing how to reopen in the fall. The agency says private schools follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state health department, and the governor’s office. 

“I suspect that North Carolina private school leaders are grateful for that discretion and their counterparts in public schools envy it,” said Terry Stoops, vice president of research and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation. 

Carolina Journal emailed DNPE asking about guidance for how private schools should reopen. Instead of answering, the agency told CJ to submit a public records request. 

Private schools rely mostly on tuition. While private schools can receive CARES Act money from the federal COVID relief law, they have to wait for money to be sent to the public school district they fall under.  

Several private schools have released reopening plans online, including North Raleigh Christian Academy, Ravenscroft School, Carolina Friends School, and St. Timothy’s School. 

Many of the plans include face mask requirements, social distancing, and regularly disinfecting the school buildings. In some plans, extracurricular activities and sports are restricted.

Tim Tinnesz, head of school at St. Timothy’s School in Raleigh, has sent several letters to parents and teachers detailing what reopening will look like in the fall. 

St. Timothy’s School intends to maximize on-campus, in-person instruction in a safe manner, a May 22 letter says. This includes promoting good hygiene, requiring face masks, and limiting the number of students in the building. Vulnerable or quarantined students will have the option to use virtual learning. 

St. Timothy’s is repurposing the dining hall, library, and gym as nontraditional classrooms to ensure smaller class sizes. Teachers will rotate between classrooms while students stay in one place. 

“We have a plan, but we really have plan A, B, C. It’s more of a playbook than a plan. It says if things look this way, then here’s what we do. If things look differently, then here’s what we do, and they all involve following CDC and NCDHHS guidelines every step of the way,” Tinnesz told CBS17

North Raleigh’s Ravenscroft relied on guidance from the CDC, the state health department, and the National Association for Independent School while crafting a plan, said Jennifer Davis, Ravenscroft communications director. The private school also turned to INDEX, a nonprofit providing resources to independent schools. 

Carolina Friends School in Durham is requiring masks for older students, but not for younger ones. Teachers and staff are required to wear masks. The private school will shrink class sizes to 10 or 15 students, when feasible.

In some cases, private schools are letting parents steer decisions about social distancing — a choice unavailable to many who attend public schools. Schools such as Ravenscroft are offering online classes for families who are uncomfortable sending their children to classes in the fall.

Like Ravenscroft, NRCA will allow parents to choose a hybrid plan for their children that blends online learning with in-person instruction. 

NRCA’s reopening plan includes four color-coded levels for different restrictions on school operations. The levels range from normal operations, to remote learning only, with more stringent measures in between.

NRCA will start the school year on mid-level precautions, but the school will adjust quarterly — or as needed. 

The N.C. Christian Schools Association has sent guidance and provided webinars to private Christian schools on how to reopen safely. 

NCCSA President Joe Haas sent private Christian school leaders a letter highly recommending they use the state health department’s toolkit as a template for their own reopening plans. 

If the governor issues another closing order that doesn’t cover private schools, Christian school leaders should consider how parents feel about staying open, Haas wrote. 

“If all public and private schools cancel onsite instruction or have alternative schedules, and your school is the only one open or the only one not utilizing alternative schedules, it could present a negative image to your community,” Haas wrote.