Tacoma News Tribune July 30, 2020

For Tacoma and Pierce County, it’s looking like another familiar tale of haves and have-nots.

As public school families throughout the area gear up for the increasing likelihood of distance learning this fall, many private school families are buying pencils and backpacks, preparing for a much different reality.

Despite recommendations from Pierce County’s top public health official to the contrary, private schools like the Charles Wright Academy, Annie Wright Schools and Bellarmine Prep have plans to return to some level of in-person instruction when the 2020-2021 school year begins, officials from the schools told The News Tribune this week.  According to an announcement from Tacoma’s Life Christian Academy recently reposted to the school’s Facebook page, the same is true.

The schools’ re-opening plans — while subject to change — set up a potential clash with the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, which has recommended distance learning for all area schools this fall.

“I think a lot of schools were hoping to be able to be open for in-person instruction. I don’t know how many now are still planning to after they’ve heard my recommendation on this,” Pierce County health director. Dr. Anthony Chen told The News Tribune Wednesday. “My recommendation, as of last weekend, is that today it’s not currently safe to do so.”

While stressing that they still have an ability to quickly move to distance-learning models if necessary, Charles Wright, Annie Wright and Bellarmine — which charge thousands of dollars each year in tuition — each expressed confidence that the plans they have developed for in-person learning are safe for students, staff and the community.  In doing so, the private schools also reiterated a common refrain:  When it comes to educating children, there’s simply no way to replicate what happens in a classroom.

That’s the stark rub, and if private schools do open for in-person instruction this fall, it will be yet another inequity exposed and exacerbated by COVID-19.  In March, Gov. Jay Inslee closed all schools across the state — public and private.  Now, barring another mandate, private schools in the area staunchly believe they have the ability and resources to reopen safely and are planning to do so.

Local school districts, meanwhile, have concluded that public schools should not, at least under the current circumstances.  Tacoma Public Schools, which is preparing to start the school year remotely, acknowledged that some elementary students might not receive needed computers until January.

“I think, ultimately, we know that kids need to be back in school. We also know (COVID-19) isn’t going away anytime soon. It’s a big decision,” said Susan Rice, head of school at the Charles Wright Academy.


With COVID-19 cases spiking, Rice said officials from Charles Wright, like other private schools in the area, have regularly been talking to experts and reviewing the ever-changing public health guidance, all while doing their best to plan for an uncertain fall.

“We have been planning a physical reopening since June … studying and researching and working on how we can do that in the safest possible way,” Rice said.

At Charles Wright, the academy’s current plan calls for using its 107-acre campus to reduce the chance of spreading COVID-19. The large campus serves only 525 students, from preschool to 12th grade, which gives Charles Wright an ability to “integrate an open-air model” for students while “leveraging the outdoor space,” Rice said.

To further improve physical distancing, Rice said, Charles Wright has relied on a space planning algorithm known as the Rosner Model to map its campus. Masks will be required, and the school — which charges a tuition ranging from about $1,600 to about $3,000 range per month — will use a single entry point, where medical checks will be performed, she added.

Rice also said Charles Wright will offer a distant learning option for any family that doesn’t feel comfortable returning to in-person learning, while every Charles Wright student has a school-issued laptop or tablet.  Teachers will be provided an opportunity to work remotely if they choose, Rice said.

Similarly, Jen Willey, a spokesperson for Annie Wright School, said the school is prepared to open for in-person learning in the coming weeks for preschool through 12th grade, with many of the same measures in place.  Like at Charles Wright, Willey said, Annie Wright’s large campus and relatively small student body allows the school to be “flexible and nimble in our ability to keep our community safe and still deliver the high-quality Annie Wright program.”  Wiley said teachers and staff at Annie Wright are “committed to nurturing and teaching our students,” while acknowledging that some “understandably, as concerned as we all are with the uncertainty of the coming year.”

“Many faculty are eager to return to the classroom, but we also have some that feel anxious,” Wiley said, noting that school is in the process of “getting feedback” from its teachers and staff so that needs can be addressed.

Overall, Wiley said Annie Wright feels “very confident” in its plan to reopen, while reiterating that the school is also prepared to transition to online if necessary.  The annual tuition at Annie Wright ranges from $17,000 to $29,920, depending on grade level, Willey said.

At Bellarmine Prep, the Catholic high school has plans to employ a hybrid approach this fall that combines in-person instruction with distance learning, according to spokesperson Craig Coovert.  Coovert described Bellarmine’s plan as a “Hyflex model,” allowing the school to “easily pivot between a hybrid model, distance learning model, and full face-to-face model without impacting our schedule and instruction.”  Coovert, like officials from Charles Wright and Annie Wright said Bellarmine will rely on evolving COVID-19 safety guidance and recommendations and stands prepared to make changes.

Coovert stressed that Bellarmine will continue to review its plans for in-person instruction, including taking into account recommendations from the local health department and public health director Dr. Anthony Chen.  For the 2020-2021 school year, Bellarmine’s annual tuition is roughly $17,000.

Bellarmine, Charles Wright and Annie Wright all offer millions of dollars in financial aid packages to qualifying families, officials from the schools said.


Officials from Charles Wright, Annie Wright and Bellarmine told The News Tribune plans for in-person learning this fall are based on the most current federal, state and local health and safety recommendations.  As the situation with COVID-19 continues to evolve, so will the schools’ plans, they said.

At the same time, a potential disagreement looms.  Last week, Chen issued recommendations warning against the physical reopening of schools under current circumstances.  Chen’s recommendations quickly led local public school districts to move toward distance learning models for the fall.

“Reopening for in-person instruction can cause community transmission to increase and case numbers to grow. It can also put our education professionals and school support staff at risk,” Chen said.

How strictly Chen’s recommendations apply to private schools remains a matter of debate, at least to some.  According to Lori Karnes, an environmental health specialist with the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, it’s an open-and-shut case.

“The recommendation that Dr. Chen made for schools is for both public and private,” Karnes said in a statement sent to The News Tribune. “The widespread transmission in the community does not support in-person instruction. Dr. Chen is providing this recommendation to all schools.”

Rice, and others, see it differently.

“The recommendation from Dr. Chen was issued as a letter addressed to school superintendents. The letter was shared with us, but it was addressed to school superintendents and clearly speaks about the needs and challenges of ‘local school districts’ which we are not members of,” the head of school at Charles Wright said in a statement sent to The News Tribune.

To support her interpretation, Rice cited guidance Charles Wright and other private schools have received from the Washington Federation of Independent Schools.

Suzie Hanson, executive director of the Washington Federation of Independent Schools, said Wednesday that her organization views the guidance Chen provided l as “recommendations only.”

“We are moving forward accordingly, until we’re told differently,” Hanson said.

“The question is whether or not independent schools or private schools who follow the rules are allowed to (open for in-person learning),” Hanson said. “I think we need to get to the bottom of who can and is entitled to close not only public schools but private schools as well, and is that something that should be the case?”

Given the circumstances, Hanson was confident that plans being developed by area private schools would allow them to reopen safely during the pandemic. She noted that some schools have “spent thousands, or hundreds of thousands of dollars” to do so.

“I think it’s important that they do (reopen), and I am really hopeful they will be allowed to,” Hanson said.

At this point, Dale Phelps, a spokesperson for Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department’s COVID-19 response, described Chen’s recommendations as just that — recommendations.  However, as the school year draws closer, the county health department does have the power to curtail in-person instruction at private schools if necessary, Phelps said.

It also remains possible that Inslee could issue another closure of schools — public and private.

Short of that, Chen would prefer a collaborative approach, as opposed to the county health department stepping in and taking action to close private schools.