Private Schools That Can Reopen Safely Should Have Option, Association Says

There are more than 1,000 private schools in the state, according to the Texas Private Schools Association

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The owner of a North Texas private school is questioning whether there are any waivers or exemptions that could be applied to small schools like hers in regards to reopening.

Kim Olstrup is the owner of Midcities Montessori, a non-religious private school located in Bedford. Under a joint order signed this week, all Tarrant County public schools and non-religious private schools can only offer online or virtual learning until at least Sept. 28.

“With our class sizes being so small now and having all our safety precautions in place, parents are reaching out asking me…‘please don’t close’,” Olstrup told NBC 5 on Friday. “My own daughter is a student at our school, and she says ‘Mom, please fight for our school to stay open’”.

Midcities Montessori typically serves about 120 students, but Olstrup said they have reduced the size of the school to about 50.

“We’re in a 25,000 square foot facility and our classrooms are old racquetball courts, so they’re 800 square feet,” she said. “In the time of COVID, we’ve decided that having smaller class sizes actually gives us that six-foot of distance between the children as well as give them the space for movement. So, we’re not confined sitting in a chair or desk, there is extra space so they can move around.”

Olstrup said she has been trying to get clarification on whether they can receive any waiver, or one exists at all, given how small their school is. She’s also hoping for more clarification on the decision.

“Daycares are accepting more students, facilities are opening their doors which are normally afterschool. [There’s] extracurricular activities all day long to be able to help tutor and mentor the students with their education all day long, which makes it no different than I’m trying to do to open my doors to educate,” she said. “One-on-one individualized education is what we do here because no two children are the same. Can’t do that online.”

Olstrup said they have already purchased an electrostatic sanitizing system to sanitize classrooms. It’s similar to ones used in hospitals, rental car agencies, and airplanes, she said.

She is not the only one with questions about reopening, as it relates to smaller private schools. Laura Colangelo, executive director of the Texas Private Schools Association, they have gotten questions from other school leaders.

The association advocates for the 1,000-plus private schools in the state, including the roughly 100 in Tarrant County.

"I’m not saying every private school is ready to open. I don’t think that’s true, but the ones that are ready need to have the ability to do that," Colangelo said. “I understand that for public schools, it’s a bigger idea and they may have more problems getting open, but our private schools are nimble and they have been working since May. Some of them have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars putting in the electrostatic cleaning, the plastic separator, they’re ready to get their kids back in the classroom. They’re not going to do it if they can’t do it safely. We have to worry about protecting our kids, protecting our staff, and liabilities so there are a lot of concerns, but private schools can do it and they should be able to if they can.”

Earlier this week, public health officials spoke on the joint order before the Tarrant County Commissioners Court. Vinny Taneja, director of Tarrant County Public Health, was part of the discussion before it was presented.

“These decisions are based on what local data is showing us in Tarrant County. We are in a significant surge scenario in Tarrant County,” Taneja told reporters at the Tuesday briefing. “A lot of people think, ‘oh…young kids, they get the illness but they’re going to bounce back.’ That is true, but that doesn’t mean they can’t spread it to others. They are as efficient as adults in spreading the virus, and that’s been our concern.”

A spokesperson for Tarrant County Public Health pointed NBC 5 to the order on Friday, which states it applies to “all public and non-religious private schools in Tarrant County, the City of Arlington, and the City of Burleson (collectively referred to as "School Systems") offering instruction to students in any and all grades, pre-kindergarten through grade 12.” with no mention of an exception.

When asked about the public health concern, Colangelo said that information, along with guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) needed to be taken into consideration when weighing decisions.

On July 10, AAP released a joint statement which stated they “recognize that children learn best when physically present in the classroom. But children get much more than academics at school”.

However, the statement also urged local school leaders, public health experts, educators and parents to be at the center of decisions about how and when to reopen schools, taking into account the spread of COVID-19 in their communities.

“For instance, schools in areas with high levels of COVID-19 community spread should not be compelled to reopen against the judgment of local experts A one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate for return to school decisions,” the statement said.

To read the full statement, click here.

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