At St. Joseph Catholic School in Waconia, the phones have been ringing far more than usual for this time of summer.

On the other end of the line: parents, anxious about the coming school year and hoping for a more definitive answer than public schools are ready to provide.

“That’s the first thing they want to know,” said Principal Bruce Richards. “Do we plan to open?”

As parents, teachers and school administrators wait for a decision on whether Minnesota’s public schools will open this fall, private schools around the state are already announcing their intention to open — and seeing a spike in interest from parents who want to see their children in school full time.

Most private schools shut down this spring and summer as the COVID-19 pandemic surged, and may do so again if conditions worsen. But leaders of those schools say their ability to make decisions independently, coupled with their small size, makes them better equipped to open — and potentially stay that way — even if neighboring public schools do not.

Faced with the prospect of more months of distance learning, a shortened school week, or a year that could include repeated rounds of closures, some parents are willing to pay tuition.

At St. Peter Catholic School in North St. Paul, Principal Alison Dahlman said a few grade levels are full and have waiting lists for the first time.

“There’s an interest from parents who are telling me on the phone that they want in-person instruction, and they’re willing to switch schools to make that happen,” she said.

It’s not clear yet how many students might shift from public to private school amid the pandemic. So far, many of the calls to private school admissions offices are from parents seeking information.

Richards, the principal at St. Joseph, said he received about 10 calls from interested parents in a two-day span last week, after the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis announced that Twin Cities Catholic schools would open this fall. For a school with 200 students, that’s a big number.

He said parents are trying to sort out schools’ plans on many fronts. After asking if the school will be open, the second most common question is whether students will be required to wear masks. (The answer: St. Joseph’s leaders are still figuring that out, but most likely will require masks in some areas of the building.)

“The number of inquiries in the last week is as high as it’s ever been in one week’s time,” he said. “It’s off the charts.”

It’s a similar story at many of the state’s more than 450 private schools — also known as nonpublic or independent schools — which together serve about 65,000 students.

Enrollment at Minnehaha Academy, a Minneapolis Christian school, is up over this time last year. More inquiries are also coming in at Southview Christian School, a 45-student Burnsville school affiliated with the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

West of the Twin Cities, Mayer Lutheran High School executive director Joel Landskroener said he expects even more calls if state officials direct public schools to keep students home or mandate “hybrid” instruction, where students would rotate on different days to maintain strict building capacity and social distancing rules. That announcement is expected by the week of July 27.

“I think we should all put our seat belts on,” he said, “because when that last week of July comes along, we’re in for a wild ride.”

Pandemic planning

As they wait for a surge — or not — of new students, private school leaders are busy preparing their reopening plans. Though they are not bound by the Department of Education’s decisions, most administrators are paying close attention to state health guidelines, buying masks and hand sanitizer and figuring out how to keep students and teachers safe.

With a median enrollment of about 90 students, Minnesota’s nonpublic schools are considerably smaller than many public schools.

Administrators say that in some cases, that means they can skip over the dizzying calculations public school districts are performing to ensure social distancing.

That’s the case at the Academy of Whole Learning, a Minnetonka school for students with autism spectrum disorder. Because of the students’ needs, the school already has extra-large classrooms and class sizes of just eight students in a room.

Wyayn Rasmussen, the school’s executive director, said the school planned early and snagged plenty of in-demand supplies.

The school plans to open this fall, but has a plan for distance learning, if needed. It’s daunting to have the responsibility to decide when, and if, to shut down, but Rasmussen said she’s grateful the school won’t be lumped in with other larger schools.

“I am not afraid to shut down if we need to, but we don’t have to,” she said.

Southview Christian’s three-member teaching staff spent some of last week clearing out classrooms, getting rid of furniture that could inhibit social distancing and preparing for deep cleaning. The school is scheduled to open Aug. 17, and Principal Rayleen Hansen said she hopes to keep it open by following health guidelines and spending as much classroom time outdoors as possible.

She said all students will wear face masks, but that it won’t be an adjustment; the school started asking students to use them four years ago whenever they had a cold.

“We found it did cut down on passing the cold and the flu around,” Hansen said.

Potential hurdles

Even if private schools can stay open, they could run into logistical challenges if public schools close. In Minnesota, private schools can provide student transportation through public schools. The two systems sometimes share personnel, like school nurses, and work together to assist students with special needs.

Meanwhile, many private schools are grappling with tight budgets, just like their public school peers.

They know the economic slump could force some families out, or prompt them to ask for more financial aid. Many schools’ major spring fundraisers were affected by the pandemic shutdown. Religious institutions that support some of the schools have seen their revenue drop with canceled worship services.

And while school leaders say they welcome the opportunity to serve more students, they also want families committed to their educational philosophies — not just shopping for a short-term solution.

“We can’t be in a position where we have a family or families enroll temporarily until the possibility that their public school option opens back up,” said Andrew Hilliker, principal of St. Joseph Catholic School in Moorhead. “It’s not healthy for kids, nor is it healthy for our school function.”