Many of South Florida’s private schools — and some charters — will return to buildings in the fall

By Scott Travis

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. _ Parents hoping to send their children to an actual school campus this fall may have to shell out money for a private school.

Despite pressure from the state and federal governments to open their campuses for the new year, most South Florida public schools plan to start off online only due to the continued surge of COVID-19 cases and deaths in South Florida. A few charter schools plan to offer in-person instruction, but most say they will begin online until conditions improve.

For private schools, it’s a different story.

“Most of the private schools we’ve heard from or about in recent weeks said they were planning to open for in-person learning at the beginning of the school year,” said Ron Matus, director of policy and public affairs for Step Up For Students, which offers scholarships for private school tuition.

Matus said applications in South Florida during the past month are up by a third. This comes as Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade school districts have each announced they planned to offer all or most of their instruction online for at least the first few weeks of school.

Some large private schools planning to open in South Florida are Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale and Boca Raton, American Heritage in Plantation and Delray Beach, North Broward Preparatory School in Coconut Creek, St. Andrews School in Boca Raton, Cardinal Gibbons High in Fort Lauderdale and Saint John Paul II High in Boca Raton. They also plan to offer online options for parents who aren’t ready to return.

Most schools in the state, both public and private, switched to remote learning during the second half of the spring semester. But many parents complained instruction was poor or nonexistent and they can’t go to work if their kids have to learn at home.

Many private schools are looking to serve those students. Many require parents to sign liability waivers.

Boca Raton Christian School, which serves about 600 students, has received interest from disaffected public school parents, said Wendy Stapleton, head of the school. She said parents have overwhelmingly favored in-person instruction.

“With our school being a smaller model and more contained, we can better mitigate risks, although nobody can eliminate risks,” she said.

She said most students are driven to school by their families, so they don’t have the same transportation concerns as public schools.

Bill Carlisle, who lives in Deerfield Beach, has enrolled his daughter into kindergarten at Boca Raton Christian.

“It’s important for my daughter to attend in person because of the individual attention that online instruction can’t readily reproduce,” he said. “If she were older, perhaps in high school, it might be a viable option, but a kindergartener has neither the discipline nor the emotional maturity required to make distance learning effective.”

But private schools can be expensive, especially during a time when many families have lost income due to the pandemic. Although there are scholarship and voucher programs that reduce the costs for some families, most parents will have to pay anywhere from a few thousand to over $30,000 a year in private school tuition.

Charter schools have gained popularity in the past two decades as a free alternative to traditional public schools. But only a few in South Florida plan to start the school year off with in-person instruction.

Pembroke Pines’ city-run charter school system is starting online only. So are Franklin Academy schools and charter schools operated by the management company Academica, including Somerset and Ben Gamla. The nine BridgePrep charter schools in South Florida are also starting virtually.

“We did surveys with our families and I would say 60% are still feeling the need to stay home,” said J.C. Quintana, an educational service and support manager for BridgePrep schools. “They feel a heightened level of concern based on what they see in the media.”

But there are some exceptions. Avant Garde Academy in Hollywood announced plans this week for in-person instruction.

“Parents can choose face-to-face teacher instruction at the school or continue remote learning from home with a new robust online program designed to meet the needs of all students, including interaction with peers and teachers,” a post on the school’s Facebook page says.

Another major exception is Charter Schools USA, which operates 21 South Florida schools, many under the name Renaissance. Its CEO, John Hage, is a member of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Reopen Florida Task Force. DeSantis has been a big advocate for schools opening for in-person instruction.

Charter Schools USA’s current plans for most schools call for three options: five days of a week of in-person instruction, online-only instruction or a hybrid where students attend two days a week and do online learning the three other days.

“As educators, we have a moral responsibility to provide each child with a high quality education,” said Eddie Ruiz, Florida state director of Charter Schools USA “In this unique time, we have to protect students from irreparable harm caused by the interruption of their education due to this crisis.”

However, he said no final decisions have been made, and the schools could return to online-only instruction if conditions are deemed too unsafe.

“We will not compromise the health or safety of our students or staff,” he said.

At least one Charter Schools USA-managed campus, Coral Springs Charter School, plans to start the year off virtually. The school is owned by the city of Coral Springs and commissioners decided conditions were too risky to return students to campus.

City Commissioner Larry Vignola said a safety team for the city urged against reopening right now, saying it could increase the spread of the virus and overburden hospitals and emergency personnel.

“I would love for my kids to be in school, but I just don’t feel like it is safe right now,” Vignola said.

Commissioner Joshua Simmons, who is also a Broward public school teacher, agreed.

“Losing one person to this virus is a tragedy, and as elected officials, we should be doing all we can to not cause any more preventable deaths and illness,” he said. “Opening schools in Broward, with our numbers like they are, significantly increases that possibility.”

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