Private schools in Texas limit enrollment as they aim to reopen classrooms

Private schools weighing whether to reopen their campuses as the coronavirus pandemic continues face a different calculus than their public counterparts.      Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune
Private schools weighing whether to reopen their campuses as the coronavirus pandemic continues face a different calculus than their public counterparts. Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

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While debate about how to safely reopen public schools in Texas raged through the summer, Kim Olstrup was preparing to bring students back to her Midcities Montessori private school in Bedford. She bought an electrostatic disinfection device similar to one used on airplanes and halved enrollment from about 130 students to about 60 to accommodate social distancing in her classrooms.

In two weeks, her school for children in preschool to 12th grade will be open to students. Olstrup is optimistic enough about her precautions that she didn’t even consider turning to virtual learning as an option.

Private schools weighing whether to reopen their campuses as the coronavirus pandemic continues face a different calculus than their public counterparts. The fewer students in classrooms, the more income lost. But if they fall short on safety, private schools are more vulnerable to lawsuits than public schools.

Texas has about 900 accredited private schools that served about 250,000 students last academic year, according to the Texas Private Schools Association. Even with many Texas parents desperately seeking schools to take their children, private school enrollment is expected to drop for the next academic year, industry leaders and school leaders say.

But even with tuition income likely to go down, many schools are spending money they hadn't budgeted for safety measures like disinfectants and personal protective equipment and buying online learning software.

Texas is set to receive almost $1.3 billion from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, the largest pot of money allocated for local education agencies — which includes public school districts and charter schools — under the CARES Act, said Morgan Craven, national director of policy, advocacy and community engagement for the Intercultural Development Research Association.

Private schools will get some of that money, but it's unclear how much. Public schools usually have to set aside a portion of federal money for “equitable services” for private school students. The calculation is made based on how many low-income students go to private schools.