Opinion: Let nonpublic, religious schools return to class safely

Tom Kapanka
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Just a week before Thanksgiving, one of our seniors at Calvary Christian School, where I am superintendent, lost both of her grandparents. Under normal circumstances, the entire school community would have personally come alongside this student, offering fellowship, comfort, and support. This is what schools do as mini communities, and nonpublic religious schools consider this an inherent part of their outreach to students and families.

Calvary, like many religious nonpublic schools, has gone the extra mile during this pandemic to meet the needs of their families for academic rigor in a medically safe community setting. Michigan could be an ally with other states demonstrating responsible school openings by returning such decisions to the local level. Districts and nonpublic school systems know their own communities and the effectiveness of the board-approved protocols within their buildings.

Let’s quarantine politics from the compelling data that favors in-person instruction, Kapanka writes.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that mental health visits by children aged 5-11 have increased 24% over 2019, while such visits by kids aged 12-17 shot up 31%. The American Association of Pediatrics (AAP), as recently as its Aug. 19 update, “strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.”

Is it really necessary and in the best interest of Michigan families to close all high schools regardless of the different realities from district to district? For instance, the rates of COVID-19 infection in Catholic schools in Michigan’s largest cities of Detroit and Lansing are currently at a remarkably low 1.1% and 1.6% (Detroit public schools recently were near a 5% rate). Additionally, National Public Radio cited a University of Michigan medical school expert at an October briefing. His view? "The data so far are not indicating that schools are a super spreader site."

While politicians and their powerful political allies force all schools (or certain grade levels) to stay closed when evidence shows schools can be healthy and safe environments, our fundamental question is this: Why do nonpublic sector schools and their teachers have no voice at all in this matter when, in fact, the majority of them have a strong record of success, they strive to honor the protocols from the Michigan Department of Health, and have modeled a cooperative spirit throughout this process?

We realize that each nonpublic school is different, but they share many similarities in their ability to manage the current situation in safe and effective ways. It is the existence of such variables that prompts us to appeal for restoration of the freedom for nonpublic schools, and even school districts or cities for that matter, to act in the best interest of the children and families they serve in the context of their own resources, rather than be subject to statewide edicts.

Finally, we have been following a similar case regarding nonpublic Christian schools in Kentucky and recognize the recent Supreme Court case in New York that blocked the enforcement of restrictions on churches and religious gatherings. In fact, we feel that this situation in Michigan clearly has to do with freedom of religion and we are united in spirit with all religious nonpublic schools in Michigan regardless of affiliation.

Let nonpublic religious schools do what they do best: serve their wider communities with solid academics in a safe environment. Let’s quarantine politics from the compelling data that favors in-person instruction. Let’s return such decisions to the local level, which allow nonpublic schools to meet the needs of students and their families who often make great sacrifices to provide the education they believe is best for their children.

Tom Kapanka heads Calvary Christian Schools in Fruitport. 

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