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The Palmer School for Boys and Girls, a Walnut Creek-based private school that has served students in Contra Costa County since 1939, abruptly shut down on Friday.

In an email to parents, the school’s headmaster said that restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the health threat posed to students in any event, were too much to overcome.

“The school has been devastated by the pandemic, and our program cannot be sustained in the face of the ongoing uncertainty,” Headmaster Sam Mendes, a grandson of the school’s founders, said in the email to parents Friday. “Please know that this decision has been made with tremendous thought and counsel.”

“The school had a great reputation, and I loved my time there. This is a heartbreaking time for all of us.”

Kevin Freels, Palmer School alumnus

Approximately 385 students in grades junior kindergarten through eighth attended Palmer’s Jones Road campus just off Interstate 680 this past year. The school had its graduation events on Friday, an alumnus said, immediately after which an all-staff meeting was convened by Mendes, who told them of the closure.

“There was anguished wailing, and crying, and it caught everybody by surprise,” said Kevin Freels of Moraga, who attended Palmer for nine years, graduating in 1974. His son graduated from Palmer four years ago, and his daughter two years ago.

“The school had a great reputation, and I loved my time there,” Freels said. “This is a heartbreaking time for all of us.”

Palmer was founded in 1939 by William and Elizabeth Palmer — “Billy” and “Buzzy” — on the Jones Road site, their goal to provide a challenging educational atmosphere for their daughters and other young girls in the area.

The enrollment that first year was five students. A girl’s boarding school operated on the campus through the 1940s as the enrollment grew. The boarding school ended in 1952, when the school became the Palmer School for Boys and Girls. It has remained a desired school, appreciated for the 14-to-1 student/teacher ratio and its rigorous curriculum.

Though Palmer described itself as “nonsectarian,” Freels said the school was also a feeder of sorts for two well-known private high schools in Concord — De La Salle for boys, and Carondelet for girls, both Roman Catholic institutions. Many Palmer students have also gone on to attend public high schools throughout central Contra Costa and beyond.

Angela De La Housaye said an online petition calling for the Palmer School to remain open would flatter Mendes, whom she said had been weighing for several weeks whether to keep the school open, and is devastated over the school’s closure.

The petition had nearly 1,800 signatures as of Monday afternoon.

“I don’t think it’s something he’s interested in pursuing at all,” said De La Housaye, an attorney for the school. Her three sons all graduated from Palmer.

In a sense, De La Housaye said, keeping the school open in an era of distance learning, or of proper in-class social distancing, would probably not be feasible, for myriad reasons.

Losing that physical presence and togetherness, she said, would adversely affect the school’s very social fabric. And risking the health and safety of students and staff, she said, is out of the question.

The school’s closure, especially with the uncertainty of how COVID-19 will affect its long-term operations, may well be the right course of action, De La Housaye said.

“Palmer doesn’t try to be something it isn’t — it’s a community of people that takes care of your children,” she said. “It’s not going to try to morph into something it’s not. And there’s dignity in that.”