On the same day Attorney General Ken Paxton issued guidance stating religious private schools are exempt from government mandates on school reopenings, the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District published a local order barring private and public schools from holding in-person classes until after Labor Day.

The conflicting announcements left Mayor Ron Nirenberg encouraging all local school systems – public and private – to heed health guidance when preparing for the fall.

“It doesn’t matter what classification the school is if our interest is in keeping people healthy,” Nirenberg said in an interview with KSAT on Wednesday. “… It is clearly in the science of what we are looking at for stopping this pandemic and keeping our kids, our teachers, our parents, keeping the community healthy.”

But even with Nirenberg and other local health officials’ directives, some private schools are considering opening their campus doors in August.

Cornerstone Christian Schools announced Thursday that it would welcome its 1,350 students back to campus on Aug. 17, noting Paxton’s guidance. Cornerstone Christian families will be able to choose between in-person and virtual learning.

The school system is “well within its rights to move forward with in-person instruction,” school officials said in a Facebook post. The school’s plan posted on Cornerstone’s website did not detail what safety protocols would be in place other than social distancing measures.

Local Catholic schools, which serve thousands of children, also are scheduled to start on Aug. 17 and thus far, officials with the Archdiocese of San Antonio have left the door open to restarting instruction both on- and off-campus.

“We are in consultation almost daily with state and local authorities and commit to taking whatever steps are necessary at the time in order to ensure safe re-entry to our campuses,” Superintendent of Catholic Schools Marti West wrote in a letter to parents last Friday. “We believe that Catholic schools, due to our smaller size, are able to adhere to safety protocols and social distancing measures recommended by the CDC to create a very safe environment for students, faculty and staff.”

For that reason, the Archdiocese and its 38 schools are planning for both in-person and online instruction, West wrote.

But not all religious schools are proceeding with plans for face-to-face classes. On Thursday, the leader of TMI Episcopal announced his school would begin the year on Aug. 20 with instruction delivered remotely. TMI hopes to conclude remote learning by Sept. 21, Head of School Scott Brown said.

Brown noted students perform best when on campus and that TMI officials want to see students in person.

“Fully returning to campus sooner than we should even with the protocols and safety measures we have in place will likely result in us having to quickly go back to remote instruction due to exposure and positive cases,” Brown said.

Most private schools participate in the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS) for athletics and other academic competitions. TAPPS activities are set to resume with practice starting on Sept. 8. The league has scheduled volleyball matches to begin on Sept. 21, and soccer and football games to start Sept. 28.

Non-religious private schools aren’t included in Paxton’s guidance and must follow the Metro Health order to delay in-person instruction until at least Sept. 8.

At Keystone School, that means virtual instruction will begin on Aug. 19. To carry out remote instruction, the school said it will issue iPads to all students in kindergarten through eighth grade. High school students already have laptops.

Keystone, which has an enrollment of about 500, began planning for this style of education in early 2020, more than a month before campuses closed in March, Head of School Billy Handmaker said. The school formed a medical advisory committee with medical professionals, researchers, and physicians. The committee recommended a number of safety protocols, including the use of face masks, which Keystone plans to implement when students return to campus.

Handmaker also gets feedback from other school leaders involved with the Independent School Association of the Southwest and the National Association of Independent Schools.

“We’re getting lots of information from a lot of different places,” Handmaker said. “We try to factor all that information in and then make what we feel like is going to be the most science-based, well-informed decision possible.”

Keystone’s plan has four options: entirely remote learning, a full return to campus, a staggered return to campus, and a hybrid. Keystone will implement a fully remote model through Labor Day, but is in the process of determining data points that will signal it is safe to switch to the other plans. The status of extracurricular activities was still undecided as of last week.

Saint Mary’s Hall is taking a similar approach, with a phased plan that includes virtual, hybrid, and on-campus instruction. The school’s leader, Len Miller, sits on the City’s advisory task force that makes recommendations on school reopenings. While Saint Mary’s Hall was founded as an Episcopal school, it no longer has a religious affiliation and is not subject to Paxton’s guidance.

After reviewing public health guidance from different sources, Miller felt like Saint Mary’s Hall, which has fewer than 900 students, would eventually be able to accommodate them on campus in a safe manner. The school’s large campus would allow for social distancing and the use of outdoor space when necessary, he said. Details on how or when face masks will be required was not available as of last week. The school plans to continue fine arts extracurriculars as part of the 2020-21 curriculum, but does not plan to hold in-person athletics until students return to campus.

But even before Metro Health issued the order barring in-person instruction, Saint Mary’s Hall had made a similar decision, citing a responsibility to the community to keep students at home.

“We feel like we have a really safe reopening [plan], but it depends in part on the numbers in the community being at a certain level as well,” Miller said. “There’s definitely a strong element of community responsibility here that we feel, that I feel as a leader in the community, and that we need to play our part.”

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.