While a July 24 order by local health officials instructed all public and non-religious private schools to delay in-person instruction through Sept. 7, a later missive from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said local public health officials do not have the power to make that call or to shut down secular private schools. As a result, individual schools have developed different plans for fall learning while the Houston region continues to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.
And due to the constantly changing guidelines, the administrative staff at area private schools did not have much of a summer vacation.
“They worked tirelessly,” Mark deTranaltes, vice president for advancement at St. Thomas High School, said of the staff at his school. “No matter where we were, they had a plan in place.”
That plan, for now, involves virtual learning from Aug. 17 until Sept. 14, at which time the campus will move to a hybrid model with half of the 600-member student body going to school on a two-day-on, two-day-off schedule, for a 10-day cycle.
While deTranaltes said that to his knowledge, no families have asked for a 100 percent virtual option for the year, the school at 4500 Memorial Dr. is “always open to conversations.”
Like St. Thomas, St. Pius X will also start in a distance-learning model Aug. 17, with in-person learning starting Sept. 8 on the campus at 811 W. Donovan St.
“Once we feel circumstances allow students to be back on campus, we will begin with a hybrid model,” St. Pius X spokesperson Jacquelynn Conger said. “Approximately 50 percent of our students will be on campus while the rest are learning from home. Cutting the on-site class in half will allow the appropriate space for physical distancing in the classroom.”
Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart, located at 10202 Memorial Dr., will begin the school year Monday, Aug. 10 with remote learning for all students. Its plan is to stagger the return of students between Sept. 8-11.
School of the Woods, a Montessori school at 1321 Wirt Rd., is following the current Houston ISD schedule of virtual learning starting Sept. 8 and a hopeful return to in-person classes on Oct. 19.
In person start
A July 16 Facebook post from The Awty International School, at 7455 Awty School Ln., said it is planning to open school on campus for all students in August with a remote-learning option available for families not ready or unable to return to campus in person.
The same goes for Lutheran High North, located at 1130 W. 34th St. Its 125-student body starts Aug. 18.
Head of School Dana Gerard said the Lutheran High North is offering families the option to do virtual learning for the first quarter, with the option to extend it for the semester. Beyond that, Gerard said he is open to virtual learning if data proves it prudent.
The decision to open in person was guided by parent surveys as well as consideration of state and local guidelines, according to Gerard. He said the school’s small size offers it a “great advantage” in being able to distance students.
Parent Tara Lehr agrees.
“As a mom of a child who thrives with in-person learning, this method is ideal for us,” Lehr said. “The average class body in the past has been 30 students per grade. So that is also very comforting for us.”
A larger school that opens in person on Aug. 21 is St. Rose of Lima Catholic School. The student body, which includes pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, is in the mid- to upper-400 range, depending on the year. A new St. Rose education building is currently under construction, replacing 1940s era classrooms. It is expected to be complete in March of next year and will feature a middle school quad as well.
St. Rose’s Jennifer Saladino said there are allowances for a three-week remote learning phase if families choose it. Saladino also said the school’s policies were developed to encourage reassessment should the local data change.
“The school follows state mandates as well as the advice of the Diocese and the Texas Educators Association,” Saladino said.
She said in June that the school was taking precautions to protect the students and their families.
One St. Rose parent who asked to remain anonymous said she was more nervous a few weeks ago about her child going back.
“I have had to pray hard about it,” she said.
Information about technology platforms, live instruction and additional details about safety protocols have made the St. Rose parent more comfortable as her child wished to return in person. She likes that the student body is being divided into pods whereby certain grades are grouped together, making contact tracing for COVID-19 faster and easier.
St. Ambrose Catholic School, also a pre-K through eighth grade campus, opens in-person Aug. 12. Dean of Students Danna Jankowski said in addition to face-to-face instruction, parents can choose a hybrid model with two days on campus and three days remote, or all remote learning, for each quarter.
“Whichever option parents choose, they are committed to that particular learning plan for the quarter,” Jankowski said. “In addition, we have added a part-time and half day to our PK3 and PK4 program.”
Jankowski said the school’s “vast amount of space” is an asset as well as its smaller class sizes.
“We will continue to keep class sizes down so that students can safely social distance,” she said. “We have installed touchless water fountains to fill student water bottles throughout the day as well as touchless handwashing stations and hand sanitizing stations throughout campus.”
Jankowski said the school has also invested in technology this year to make virtual learning a success.
Both St. Rose and St. Ambrose have revamped their arrival and dismissal procedures to include COVID-19 screenings. All area schools have mask and sanitation protocols in place. State guidelines mandate masks for most everyone when in public, with children under 10 years old being one of the exceptions.
At St. Thomas, deTranaltes said students will use an app called Quickscreen to answer screening questions before they enter the building.
School leaders say they are cognizant of the academic, social and emotional effects COVID-19 has had on their school populations.
For Saladino, that negative impact is a reason for their way forward.
“St. Rose of Lima recognizes that real education occurs only with real relationships, and we are here for the community,” she said.
Kim Evans is a parent with two children in two different schools. Her seventh grader will be at St. Ambrose and her oldest will be in ninth grade at St. Pius X. Evans said she does not have strong opinions about online vs in person learning.
“However, I am for high quality education and standards and I think both of these schools will be able to do that this year,” she said. “I know they have all been very thoughtful, intentional, and prayerful. And that is important.”