All Things Considered

Exempt from COVID-19 guidance, some Minnesota private schools are seeing a surge in applicants

A bottle of hand sanitizer sits in a classroom.
A bottle of hand sanitizer sits on a cart as Des Moines Public Schools custodian Tracy Harris cleans a chair in a classroom at Brubaker Elementary School on July 8 in Des Moines, Iowa. In Minnesota, many independent and faith-based schools are offering face-to-face instruction this fall when their public school neighbors cannot.
Charlie Neibergall | AP Photo file

Some private schools in Minnesota say they’re seeing a surge in new applicants as the pandemic stretches into fall. Independent and faith-based schools are exempt from the state's recent guidance on reopening, and many of them are offering face-to-face instruction when their public school neighbors cannot.

Kevin Breen, the head of school for the Marshall School in Duluth, Minn., told MPR News that applications from prospective students in July went from a three-year average of 14 to 46 this year. And the school’s website, which averages 182 hits in July, had 996 unique visitors last month, he said.

The Marshall School, which teaches grades 4 through 12, is starting the year fully in-person, with a small number of online classes for its 11th and 12th graders.

As of Thursday, public schools in Duluth and St. Louis County could begin the school year fully in-person under the state’s guidance, but Duluth Superintendent John Magas recommended schools only bring students in kindergarten through fifth grade back full time and teach older students online four days a week, with one in-person day.

Recommendations for school reopening based on COVID-19 case counts

Breen said he believes the families looking into Marshall now are drawn to its commitment to in-person classes this year, but also something more.

“Pandemics remind us of the things in life that matter most,” he says in a newsletter to families and staff. Those approaching him about enrolling their students, Breen said, have been clear-eyed in a way he hasn’t seen in awhile about wanting a meaningful education for their children.

Breen said the majority of interest has come from the parents of fourth graders and teenagers, including some who had recently moved their families to states with higher COVID-19 rates. Marshall has a residential program.

As for the teachers at Marshall, Breen said they are worried about reopening. He said he’s encouraging them to speak up about potential safety issues. The school is also taking many safety precautions, including requiring social distancing, masks and self-screening for symptoms before coming to school.

Marshall will also stagger passing periods and make its hallways one way to limit crowding. Breen said the campus has capacity for 750 people but only takes up about half that.

He said it also has alternative learning plans in place if students or staff become sick.

Administrators at other private schools have told MPR News that they, too, are seeing an increase in applicants, though they did want to be interviewed.

Breen spoke with MPR News host Tom Crann Thursday. Click play on their audio player above to hear their conversation.