Jamari Holt wakes up every morning and gets ready for school.
His routine — up around 5:30 a.m. and ready for the bus by 6:40 — hasn’t wavered. His school, the Sarah Dooley Center for Autism at St. Joseph’s Villa in Henrico County, is closed, though, along with thousands of others in Virginia because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The services Jamari, 15, normally gets at the private day school are instead being attempted at home, through videoconference calls and regular check-ins from the center.
Jamari’s mother, Missy Jasper, said the school, where Jamari has been enrolled for about five years, has been her “lifeline and support” during the pandemic.
“Just because it’s closed doesn’t mean they’re not working and trying to help us,” said Jasper, adding that Jamari was nonverbal when he arrived at the school and can now verbally count, among other things. “They are valuable and should be compensated.”
Louisa County Public Schools has continued to pay its share of the cost for Jamari’s placement at the specialized center, but payment across the state has been inconsistent thanks to a lack of statewide guidance.
Some school districts are paying the private day schools like normal, while others have withheld payment with school buildings shuttered.
Private day schools, many facing budgetary crises, are calling on state leaders, including Gov. Ralph Northam, to issue a statewide directive on the payment of services they say are helping some of society’s most vulnerable during a public health crisis.
“We are desperate and need his leadership on this,” said Brian McCann, the CEO of The Faison Center, which has schools in Richmond and Newport News that serve students from 37 localities. “[The situation] is not only uncertain, but frightening.”
When a student is placed in a private day school — a step taken after their individualized education program (IEP) team determines they cannot receive an adequate education in a public school — the school jurisdiction where the student lives pays a third of the rate while the state, through the Children’s Services Act, pays two-thirds.
The statewide school closures, which forced public and private school buildings to shutter, have turned the private day schools into remote operations.
Instead of students coming to them for the day, the schools are reaching students virtually. Some, however, aren’t being paid because their buildings are closed, leading them to furlough workers.
William Elwood, executive director of the Virginia Coalition of Private Provider Associations, addressed the issue in public comment to the state Board of Education before a meeting earlier this month.
Elwood said he appreciates some school districts honoring their existing contracts with the private day schools, but he wants all of them to follow suit.
“We feel it is time to implement this step on a statewide basis,” he said, “and ask that all existing contracts be honored for the remainder of their terms, both by local and state funding agencies.”
Roughly 2,000 private day school employees will be furloughed or permanently laid off, with an overall financial loss of $44 million, the organization estimated, with schools closed for the rest of the year and no money coming in.
“The current situation can only be resolved by clear and consistent statewide application,” Elwood said. “It is not going to cost private day schools less to provide distance learning services.”
The Virginia Board of Education discussed the issue at its April 2 meeting after extensive comment from private day schools, but guidance from the state’s education leaders remains that it’s an issue for localities to resolve.
The Virginia Department of Education’s guidance says the “impact of the state of emergency on contractual arrangements with service providers through the Children’s Services Act remains a matter of local jurisdiction.”
The Richmond area’s variance on the issue is similar to what is happening across the state.
Richmond Public Schools, for example, is continuing to pay private day providers for the 65 students in the city who attend the schools.
“Most of the private day partners continue to provide instruction and support to our students who exhibit intensive support needs in the areas of behavior and autism, and they have committed to fully supporting our students over the summer and when school reopens,” the district said in a statement.
Henrico County Public Schools, which had 253 students in private day schools at the time of the school closures, is not paying the schools while schools are closed “unless they were able to provide the services outlined in students’ IEPs.”
Tim Bullis, a spokesman for Chesterfield County Public Schools, said the district is not recommending a cut in payments to the schools “since the expectations for private placement teachers are no different [than] that asked of our school division’s teachers,” but the county school system is looking to cut costs in medical materials, supplies and food.
The inconsistent approaches, advocates say, require a statewide solution as the schools often deal with dozens of school systems.
Asked if Northam intends to say that Children’s Services Act funds should be distributed to the private day schools, a spokeswoman for the governor sent a statement from Secretary of Education Atif Qarni. That statement was in line with the Department of Education’s guidance, stressing that it is a local decision.
“It is our expectation that the continuity of learning plans from divisions include plans to serve all students, including students with disabilities served by private day providers,” Qarni said. “Services may continue if they can be offered in a safe manner to protect the health of students and staff alike.”
He added: “Ultimately, the resolution of contractual arrangements with service providers through the Children’s Services Act and the school divisions is a matter of local jurisdiction.
“As a commonwealth, we have indicated our commitment to reimbursing localities [for the state’s] share of expenditures for services agreed upon by the local programs and the private schools. We are confident in the ability of our communities to come together to find productive solutions for all our students.”
McCann, of The Faison Center, said the state money, which makes up two-thirds of the private day school payments, already exists through the Children’s Services Act and can be “easily and quickly provided” to the schools if Northam gives that direction.
“Just as public schools are providing an education to typically developing students and paying their staff, they should honor their contracts with private day schools who, like public schools, continue to provide an education to their students during this unprecedented time,” McCann said.
Ray Ratke, the CEO of Lutheran Family Services of Virginia, which operates six schools in Southwest Virginia, said students still need the specialized education the schools offer, even with the buildings closed.
“The student’s level of need has not changed during this pandemic,” Ratke said. “If anything, it has increased due to the disruption, stress and uncertainty.”