ST. GEORGE — Although the start of a new school year is still several months away and the uncertainty of how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect the opening of schools in the fall remains to be seen, there are other factors at work that make the fate of St. George Academy still unclear.
For the academy, it has been a rocky road since mid-October.
On Oct. 10, the Utah Charter School Board voted to close the school but later rescinded that decision in November, placing the school on one-year probation to shore up its finances and meet its enrollment expectations of 350 students by their third school year.
St. George Academy is a public charter school that opened in 2017 to teach grades 8-12 with a focus on college preparatory. As a tuition-free school, the academy receives funding from the state based on enrollment.
The state charter board monitors authorized schools for fidelity to their charters and general compliance standards established by the Utah State Board of Education. When schools fail to meet their charter agreement or to comply with school board rule or legislative statute, the Utah Charter School Board can revoke charters or terminate schools.
In a previous interview in October with St. George News, Jennifer Lambert, executive director of the state charter school board, said that along with concerns of flat enrollment at St. George Academy, financial health was also a concern.
At the time of the interview, Lambert said the school had 11 days of cash on hand, and it is the state board’s policy to have 30 days of unrestricted cash reserves.
“SGA’s enrollment is currently below the breakeven point,” Lambert said, “and the school does not have the financial resources to sustain itself in the event enrollment does not increase substantially.”
To bolster its financial health since then, St. George Academy renegotiated the lease on the building, establish a targeted amount in savings and insured restricted and unrestricted funds are kept separate.
Jamie Kaneko, Utah Charter School Board director of marketing and strategic communications, said that they are “very” concerned about the impact COVID-19 will have on schools and that they weren’t making any determinations regarding St. George Academy until the fall.
“Charter school enrollment requirements are based on the individual school’s needs to ensure its ability to offer services and educate students,” Kaneko said. “Review of St. George Academy’s probation status will be held this fall. Until that time, no determinations regarding the charter will be made.”
Along with the United States Board of Education, the Charter School Board has provided guidance, resources and support to all schools throughout the pandemic.
“Dynamics created by the COVID-19 pandemic are none like we have ever experienced,” Kaneko added, “but the board will adhere to the guidance and orders established by the state.”
Despite the status still being up in the air, St. George Academy Executive Director David W. Jones said he is optimistic, even though classroom instruction was shut down in March.
“The parameters of the directions last year directly and indirectly on remaining open were financial,” Jones said. “We are good to go with all of those. We are working in the black. Our staffing remains the same, and we are still well above water. I think we have a good case to remain open. This has been an act of God, and our power to control the pandemic has been nill.”
The final component, Jones added, is reaching an enrollment of 350 students by fall.
“This is our target, but the one thing we didn’t anticipate was a global pandemic,” he said. “We’ve had no direction, no word from the state regarding this. We are doing what we can to boost enrollment.”
The fly in the ointment for school officials is that student recruitment often requires groups of parents to gather together during a collective event, something which hasn’t been possible under social distracting protocols. Current enrollment numbers as of publication of this article are approximately 260 students.
Although nobody knows whether COVID-19 will die down in the summer and circle back in the fall, Jones said the academy will soldier on with distance learning online regardless of how the coronavirus behaves.
“We are planning to have students return in the fall on campus, but we are looking at expanding our online offerings,” he said. “This black cloud event came out of nowhere and forced us to deliver content online, and through discussions with the faculty, (we decided) ‘Why don’t we continue this moving forward?'”
Plan A, he added, is students in their desks on campus in the fall and augmenting learning options with online content.
“Our students have been engaged and seem to be doing pretty well,” he said. “But what we have had to deal with has been the single greatest disruption in the history of the American education system. I was petrified when we had to flip the switch to (distance) learning, but our faculty has performed remarkably as educators.”
To ensure students have not fallen through the cracks in their educational progress, Jones added, the academy will backfill any identified learning gaps in the fall if required.
“I believe these days have been an extraordinary circumstance, and the state board should realize our challenges,” Jones said. “But things have been a little murky.”
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