Parents in the U.S. have the right to choose the best form of education for their children. Choices include public and private schools, religious-affiliated and independent schools.
According to the Nevada Department of Education (DOE), northern Nevada has 39 private schools with 4,012 students attending. Southern Nevada has 90 with 15,473 students enrolled. The student to teacher ratio for private schools is 11 to 1. Public school ratios are 19 to 1 and there are 716 public schools.
When Governor Sisolak closed schools in March, the plan was to reopen in April. As the COVID-19 pandemic worsened, all schools remained closed.
Now as educators prepare for a fall reopening, both public and private schools are creating plans prioritizing safety and education during an unprecedented pandemic. Where private schools might have anticipated losing students in current economic conditions, many are seeing an uptick in enrollment as parents weigh the importance of socialization versus social distancing, and in-person education versus distance learning.
Often predictions of “Nothing Will Ever be the Same Again” during an emergency are baseless. In this case? Education may have changed forever.
Private Schools, Public Rules
Last year 19,325 Nevada students attended private schools.
“The last time I did the math that was 4 percent of Nevada kids in private schools and 96 percent in public or charter schools,” said Steven Buuck, COO, Faith Lutheran Middle School & High School. “Nationwide it’s closer to 10 percent of kids in private schools, but in Nevada it’s much less.”
Private schools are licensed by the DOE and follow the same requirements and standards for curriculum and number of days of instruction.
Private schools can go above and beyond state requirements. They set their own standards, whether college prep, focused on academics or on religious affiliation. Families paying private school tuition are often drawn to campus culture, safety and after school activities, said Buuck.
According to the DOE, private schools work with sponsoring businesses. National organizations provide accreditation and best practices. Nevada CAPE is one such organization, an affiliate of the national Council for American Private Education (CAPE).
“We’re affiliated, but we’re a standalone organization,” said Tara Bevington, chairman, Nevada CAPE. The organization provides guidance for private schools, brings together school leaders to share best practices and presents a unified voice.
“My school is very small in Reno, only 25 students,” said Bevington. “It’s unique and only for students with learning disabilities.” But put it together with the other private schools and that voice is 19,000 students strong.
Public Versus Private Pocketbook
Independent and private schools don’t receive funding from the state; they’re tuition-based.
Some states have instituted voucher programs that allow parents to use money earmarked for their students’ education toward tuition at private schools. A landmark U.S. Supreme Court case in 2020, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, ruled that state-based scholarship programs that provide public funds to allow students to attend private schools couldn’t discriminate against religious schools.
As of yet, that ruling hasn’t mattered much in Nevada. “If we ever get to where you can use voucher money, if you can use subsidized money from the state to send kids to private school, that [case] will come into play. Right now there’s no impact, certainly not on Faith Lutheran, and I don’t think on any private school in Nevada,” said Buuck.
Nevada doesn’t have a voucher program, but there was, briefly, a tax credit program. “There’s some [voucher program funding] but it’s not a pure voucher,” said Buuck. “It’s through the Modified Business Tax (MBT), where there’s some money for kids whose families make less than 300 percent of the Federal Poverty Level. Then there’s a certain amount of money set aside in scholarship granting organizations in the state. Once Governor Sandoval left, that money has really dwindled down so that the program is not sustainable like in other states that have pure voucher programs.”
“Arizona’s had this in place for a long time so people can direct their tax dollars to schools of their choice,” said Karyn Murray, director of operations, Brookfield School in Reno. “I think our government worries about the unsureness of funding. And, in Nevada they didn’t want anything going to religious schools.” The Espinoza ruling clarified those rules on public funding and that may trickle to Nevada at some point.
Lesson Plans Amid Pandemic
Taken simply by the numbers, many private schools can anticipate an easier, or at least potentially safer, reopening than public schools. Smaller enrollment sizes and teacher/student ratios make social distancing easier, as is having the space in classrooms to put in safety measures. Simply put, a school with 2,000 or 3,000 students will have a harder time keeping students socially distanced than one with 600.
Most plans include three basic options for returning students. The first is a full time return to being physically on campus. Those plans include details like Plexiglass barriers between desks set six feet apart from each other. Cleaning crews work throughout the school day sanitizing highuse areas. Cafeterias are kept to minimum numbers or not in use. Students wear cloth face coverings into and out of the school; masks or face shields will be worn during classes.
Distance learning allows students either synchronous or asynchronous education online. The former means teachers live stream classes while working with on-campus students. Roll is taken, and if a class starts at 7:45 when the child is present, it starts at 7:45 when the child is home.
Asynchronous distance education includes uploading videos of the classes to the cloud and students viewing the videos after the class has finished.
Matthew Schambari, president, Bishop Manogue High School, said their plan, approved in July, offers three options. “We have an open model which would take into account students and teachers wearing masks, appropriate PPE and Plexiglass in places where we need to have Plexiglass. Entry and exit plans, temperature taking and a wide range of different strategies [are in place] to mitigate the potential for transmission.”
Bishop Manogue isn’t prepared to enter at that point, so they’re starting with the second plan, a hybrid model that allows for under 50 percent capacity daily. “So, depending on the student, half the week they’ll be online, half the week they’ll be on ground. We’ve rolled out for synchronous education, so a student will have the same schedule over the course of the week and they can take that class either on ground or online.”
For families wanting choices in returning, there’s an option for fully virtual, an option for fully physical and the decision can be made on a day to day, week to week, or quarter to quarter basis.
“We have flexibility there,” said Schambari. And because not everything is caused by the coronavirus, that flexibility was already being built into the school’s five year strategic plan to make attending easier for students coming to the Reno school from as far away as Portola, Tahoe or Truckee.
Faith Lutheran will offer similar options using a system called Swivel that allows teachers to move freely around the classroom while a mike attached to a lanyard picks up the lecture and a camera pivots to track them. The school hasn’t promised synchronous learning because, with 80 swivels and 2,000 laptops and iPads connected to bandwidth and access points, they want to be certain they can handle live streaming without buffering.
Tuition, registration and activity fees are a concern for parents who are out of work, especially when students aren’t receiving the benefit of the culture, safety and activities provided by the campus. Some schools are offering a refund if a student withdraws.
The governor’s June 9 directive required all Nevada schools to develop plans for reopening based on “Nevada’s Path Forward: A Framework for a Safe, Efficient, and Equitable Return to School Buildings”. It also allowed local school districts and private schools to reopen for summer learning and activities while implementing Phase 2 protocols for safety. Brookfield School submitted plans and opened a summer camp in June for childcare-aged children once they had the staff and protective equipment in place.
“Our intention was to use the information we learned throughout this to be able to come up with a really good plan for having all kids back on campus in the fall,” said Murray. The Health Department and DOE concurred; the same plan and school administrator’s vocal authorization is enough for their fall reopening.
Social Distancing Versus Socialization
The American Academy of Pediatrics believes school policies need to be flexible in responding to new information and develop strategies in communications with health authorities in getting students back in school.
Schambari said his school would prefer the students back on campus learning in person, for the sake of socialization, student-teacher communication and so students have access to counselors.
“Teenage mental health is a crisis in this country and we have to be able to respond to that, and that’s really tough to do through a screen if kids already feel disconnected,” he said.
For Bevington, whose students have high-functioning autism, getting back to school is important. “In-person instruction is really essential for learning and social/ emotional well-being.”
However, because of her students’ unique needs, Bevington knows the masks could pose a challenge, new and potentially threatening. In response, the school has held a mask contest and is working on familiarizing students with mask-wearing.
“Our attendance is actually going up,” said Schambari. “Talking with interested parents he found they wanted both a rigorous program of academics, and that people are attracted to the Catholic, Christian values of the school.”
But for many, looking to enroll is about virtual opportunities for learning private schools offer.
“People really want that for their kids,” he explained. “They’re worried about a different environment causing kids to fall behind. They’re really looking at us for an option for their kids to stay on track.”
Faith Lutheran budgeted for 100 fewer students come fall, anticipating enrollment will drop for the first time since 2011, following the recession. Some 20 percent of students at the school are on need-based financial aid; with businesses shutting down because of the pandemic, Buuck expects families will be unable to pay their share of tuition.
About two weeks after the shutdown, Brookfield started getting phone calls. Parents having lost jobs or income were withdrawing students as early as mid-March. “I guess everybody was impacted in a negative way,” said Murray.
Negative or positive, change is rippling through education in the wake of COVID-19. After Clark County School District chose to go back only virtually, Faith Lutheran saw more interest in admissions. Buuck doesn’t know if the school will get back to previous enrollment numbers. He’s not certain he wants to: Smaller numbers will make staying socially distanced on campus easier.
“Families are looking for a quality distance ed. program, and schools that are able to provide a reopening plan based on smaller numbers,” said Roxanne Stansbury, head of school, The Alexander Dawson School. The school is also seeing increased inquires about enrollment. “COVID is having an effect on how families are reevaluating education,” she said.
So what’s the outlook for the future of private schools in Nevada? Are all the changes stemming from the pandemic a blip or will education change forever?
“I don’t think it’s a blip. I think it’s a harbinger of what’s to come,” said Schambari. “For us, we will never be the same school again in terms of how we relate to education. I do think the advent of virtual education is not going away, not for us and not for anybody else, and quite frankly, it shouldn’t.” If schools are preparing students for college, and most colleges have hybrid programs, on campus and off, as do workplaces, then it’s important to train students for that future.
In this instance, the pandemic has played up how critically important it is for students to have access to the internet and technology so they can work remotely, Schambari said. The change may be challenging, but it’s an opportunity for education to improve and institutions to adapt and meet needs as they arise.
“That’s what we want from our kids, too, right? They need to be adaptable and able to respond to challenges and crises and develop grit. This is our opportunity to lead in that fashion,” said Schambari. “If you don’t adapt during this period of time, I don’t know how private schools will survive.”
Not all Nevada schools can adapt. The pandemic has made clear the inequalities in education, and even contributed to them. Private schools can more easily meet the demands of staying safe during the pandemic.
“Our ability to reopen our campus and adhere to all the guidelines put forth by national and local health organizations also comes with the responsibility to educate and cultivate the future leaders who will need to have the competencies to close the achievement gap created by the global pandemic,” said Stansbury. “A major part of our curriculum as we reopen our campus will be focused on lessons that build empathy, leadership skills, social justice awareness and advocacy.”
“I’ve heard from veteran leaders on the last call we had, from larger schools down in the Vegas area, that they’re a little nervous. Are we going to be able to do it online and do it right in person? It’s so important to our families and our kids,” said Bevington.
Other schools continue to see interest from potential students because of their ability to pivot to the needs of modern learning. “The coronavirus has catapulted us into a modern learning environment that we all need to respond to, have resilience to, very quickly,” said Stansbury. “The pandemic has changed education for the future in that it will probably never look exactly the same as it did before the pandemic.”