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Christian schools reopening with fewer students due to COVID-19 pandemic

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BRANDON, Fla. (BP) — Headmaster Walt Shaffner praises God and quotes Jon Bon Jovi in discussing plans for Bell Shoals Baptist Academy to reopen during the COVID-19 pandemic: “Map out your future, but do it in pencil.”

The preschool through eighth grade academy of Bell Shoals Baptist Church in Brandon, Fla., is among thousands of Christian schools resuming classes while adhering to government guidelines and safety recommendations that vary among the states, and implementing other voluntary measures.

In addition to Bell Shoals, Baptist Press spoke with First Baptist Academy of Houston’s First Baptist Church, and North Phoenix Baptist Church’s weekday preschool in Phoenix, Ariz. Schools are seeing drops in enrollment and revenue, but are moving ahead with reopening plans employing detailed safety protocols and sometimes offering a mix of onsite and virtual learning options.

Shaffner’s go-to words are “in an abundance of caution,” “pending” and “subject to change” as he discusses plans to reopen kindergarten through eighth grade Aug. 17 and preschool Aug. 19 with onsite instruction. Virtual learning will only be offered to those who are ill, as the school doesn’t have the staff to offer onsite and virtual options simultaneously for all students.

Bell Shoals enrolled about 450 students in 2019. Shaffner said 2020 enrollment is down 18-to-20 percent but could change before classes resume.

“We’re able to make our academic year happen with the students that are going to be enrolling at this point,” Shaffner said. “Plus we also, as God would have it, we’ve seen an uptick in interest in the academy because their might be some dissatisfaction with what’s going on with the initial choices of the parents” in public schools.

Bell Shoals is among options for more than 200,000 students served by Hillsborough County Public Schools (HCPS), which plans to resume onsite classes Aug. 24 with a virtual learning option available for grades K-12.

“In the midst of all this stuff, people want their child to get an education,” Shaffner said. “They want their children to develop spiritually. They want their kids to interact with their friends and their classmates and their teachers, and all of that to be done in a smart, simple and safe way. I think all the schools in the nation are struggling with this.”

Bell Shoals is a member of the Association of Christian Schools International with 2,300 member schools in the U.S. alone.

Private Christian schools are allowed to educate students from biblical worldviews not promoted in public schools, but are subject to certain public health protocols mandated by the government, according to an information sheet provided by the Southern Baptist Association of Christian Schools, rebranded in October 2019 as the National Alliance of Christian Schools. The NACS follows the Baptist Faith and Message and serves 40,000 students enrolled in 120 NACS secondary schools across 30 states.

First Baptist Academy, an NACS member, will offer a hybrid of on-campus and distance learning options when it resumes classes Aug. 20 for infants through fourth graders, and Aug. 25 for middle school.

Head of School Teresa Chambers said the staggered reopening plan will allow the administration to observe new procedures while operating at a reduced capacity, make adjustments as needed, and give younger students more time to adjust to new procedures.

First Baptist Academy, which enrolled more than 400 students in 2019, has suffered drops in enrollment alongside increased interest from the greater community. Still, Chambers plans to hire additional teachers in some grades to maintain a lower student-to-teacher ratio needed during the pandemic, and to enlarge its pool of substitutes to support teacher absences due to illness.

“We have seen some changes in our enrollment for the upcoming school year due to parents’ uncertainty of the virus’ spread within our community and its specific impact on a school environment,” Chambers told Baptist Press. “At the same time, we are also receiving inquiries from parents desiring for their children to be on campus in a learning environment this fall.”

The Houston Independent School District (HISD) will resume classes Sept. 8 with virtual instruction only, delaying onsite instruction until Oct. 19 in the city that has been a COVID-19 hotspot. The HISD has said it will amend its plans based on the changing COVID-19 landscape and safety recommendations.

Chambers advises Christian schools to consider their unique challenges and circumstances when devising reopening plans.

“I’ve learned with each school there will be uniqueness. Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all in reopening a school during a pandemic,” Chambers said. “This is a time to utilize experts in both the medical and legal fields, along with your board of trustees, to help you make the best decision for your school. Additionally, trust God’s guidance will come at the right time. I’ve prayed many times for God’s guidance to come clearly and consistently amongst my leadership team.”

North Phoenix Baptist Church’s weekday preschool serving children 6 weeks old through kindergarten reopened May 11 with extensive safety protocols that are updated as needed, school Director Jennifer Wolf said. Current enrollment of 72 students is down from the 132 who were enrolled when the school closed in March as the coronavirus pandemic began spreading in the U.S. Wolf projects enrollment to rise to 112 in August, “but that number changes every day as cases rise and K-12 schools are moving to online platforms.”

For Wolf, a greater challenge in operating a preschool during the pandemic is securing personal protection equipment.

“Many vendors are limiting the amount of supplies they will let us purchase at one time, even suppliers that we have used for many years,” Wolf said. “This increases how often we are ordering throughout the month and we have to have our staff pick items up as they see it in their local stores. Gloves are the hardest thing to find right now.

“We use nitrile gloves because they do not break and they are latex free. They are virtually impossible to find and when you do find them they are three times as much as they used to be. As a non-profit private preschool, we have had to get creative in what we buy and how we buy it.”

Wolf encourages Christian preschools to develop strong relationships with staff and families, and to communicate often.

“Don’t be afraid to communicate with your state and local health departments and read through all of the CDC guidelines on how best to implement safety policies in your school,” she said. “Follow all of your policies and do not cut corners. It is a lot of work, but with prayer, grace, and love for one another, you can find many blessings during this difficult time.”

Among common safety protocols at schools are daily temperature screenings, mask requirements, daily facility sanitizing, crowd control, smaller class sizes, visitor restrictions, social distancing and other measures.

At Bell Shoals, Shaffner said “primarily, we want to make sure that the kids who come to school are healthy and that the building is protected as best we can from any transmission of COVID.”

Shaffner believes parents have the right to choose what is best for their children.

“We will do everything we can to keep everybody safe — visitors, staff, students, everybody,” he said. “At the end of the day, the parent has to make a decision of what’s best. I would fight the fires of hell with a water gun just to protect a parent’s right to do what’s in the best interest of their child.”