Parents look to private schools for in-person instruction as school districts announce online starts

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Young elementary school students and their parents attempt to get the attention of passing motorists on Church Street in Winchester, MA on July 30, 2020. A group of Winchester parents hold an event on the town common, voicing their concerns about younger students being able to learn remotely and advocating for the full return of them to classrooms.

Jim Davis | Boston Globe | Getty Images

When classes begin on Wednesday, half of freshman at the Adelson Educational Campus will be new to the Jewish values school.

With more families looking for face-to-face instruction for fall, the Las Vegas school has seen an uptick in interest, according to Upper School Principal Camille McCue. Despite putting limits on class size to maintain social distancing, enrollment has increased.

The local public school district for many Adelson families is the 300,000-student Clark County School District. It is turning to a hybrid model for fall instruction, and families are looking for an alternative. 

“Because families already endured the loss of the fourth quarter of school last year, they’re thinking about what they want their child’s experience to be for the fall,” she said. ”There are many, many families who understand that you can’t really replace the in-person experience, especially when you’re talking about things like social and emotional engagement with students peers.”

The heightened interest McCue is seeing has mirrored reports from other private schools, as families unhappy with their district’s fall plan have begun looking elsewhere. In South Florida, for example, the number of applications started by parents for private schools has increased 32% over last year, according to Patrick Gibbons, public affairs manager for Step Up For Students, a regional organization that helps families pursue learning options that best fit their needs.

‘A no-win situation’

On Wednesday, Chicago Public Schools, the third-largest school district in the country, walked back previously floated ideas for a hybrid option, as the number of coronavirus cases rose in the city. Los Angeles Unified and Miami-Dade are also among large districts that will start the school year with remote learning. 

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, on the other hand, announced Friday all public school districts in the state have been authorized to reopen for fall given low enough viral transmission. The decision now rests with individual school districts, which must decide whether to get cleared by the health department for face-to-face learning or choose a different mode of instruction.

The Trump administration has waded into the debate, threatening to cut funding for schools that don’t fully open. Public health experts have warned against turning school reopenings “into yet another political football.” 

Parents are looking at their situation and factoring all of these complex decisions that we all have to make now and they’re considering different options.

Myra McGovern

Vice president of media, National Association of Independent Schools

Reopening plans including in-person instruction have prompted push back from teachers’ unions, who have raised concerns about the safety of congregating in school buildings. Those fears mounted as school districts that have already reopened have had to quarantine students and staff after positive Covid-19 tests came back in the first week — and in one Georgia district on the first day — of school.

Julie Kashen, senior fellow and director for women’s economic justice at the Century Foundation, called the decision on whether to reopen schools an “impossible” one to make. In an interview on “Squawk Box,” she said it is likely women and people of color who will largely face the burden of schools remaining closed, but noted all parents will struggle regardless of the choice.

“It’s a no-win situation,” Kashen said. “Parents were already running a marathon while holding their kids on their back, and now they’re also juggling fire.”

Desire for options

The surge in interest in private schools is largely coming from parents who want more options than their local public school can provide, said Myra McGovern, vice president of media at the National Association of Independent Schools, which represents more than 1,600 schools.

It may be that the parents need to work and need their children in the classroom to do that. There may be health issues with students or family members that put them at greater risk and they want a smaller school to ensure their children remain connected while learning remotely.

“Parents are looking at their situation and factoring all of these complex decisions that we all have to make now and they’re considering different options,” she said. “What private schools are offering to parents is not one solution or another, it’s just a range of options that they didn’t have in their previous school.”

McGovern said having choices makes paying for education worth the cost, even if it’s not something families would have previously considered.

When classes begin on Aug. 31 at St. Peter Catholic School in North St. Paul, Minnesota, there will likely be 10 students more than last year, with waiting lists for many grades. The school teaches preschool through eighth grade and its principal, Alison Dahlman, has fielded around a dozen calls from families thinking about enrolling each week. She normally gets that many calls over the course of the entire summer.

Despite the increased interest, the school doesn’t have the room to accommodate more students and keep proper social distancing in place. 

“We think it’s a moral good to educate children in the best way that we know how, and so that’s what we’re trying to do,” Dahlman said. “If it means new families might come and join our mission and join our schools, we feel privileged to be able to meet and welcome new families as well.”

Helping one school, hurting another

Public schools may be hurt by the trend given how funding is allocated, according to Carol Burris, Network for Public Education Foundation executive director and a former public high school principal. If the student population declines too much, school funding may be cut. Schools, however, will still need to cover the same costs, from salaries to building maintenance.

“As someone who believes deeply in the importance of public education, I am very worried if we become a system where every parent is worried about their own child and scrambling to do something different,” Burris said. “And I believe that will be accelerated if public schools do not open at least partially in the fall.”

The unknown timeline of the pandemic has made matters worse, Burris said. Parents would likely be fine with remote starts if they knew their children would go back at a certain point, but she said it can be hard to fathom remote schooling  continuing for multiple years.

A school year like no other

Whether starting the year in-person, hybrid or remote, school leaders are busy preparing for a school year that they say will be unlike any other. School leaders have been busy over summer, taking tape measures to classes to figure out how many students can safely be in every room at a time.

McCue said her school is lucky to have larger classrooms that allow the student body to increase without overcrowding. But still, even with the spacious campus, her team has been busy working out expectations for keeping students and faculty safe, such as when they must be masked.

And while McCue says they will probably have to remind students to stay a “lion’s length” apart, in reference to the school mascot, or “to make room for Moses,” a nod to the biblical story, which fittingly takes place during a plague, the in-person instruction is worth it in her eyes. Much of the value of public education comes from discussion and debate with peers, she said, which is hard to do over Zoom.

“To a great degree, the value of being in a facility with your instructor and with your peers is really hard to replicate,” she said. “It’s especially hard to replicate if you start the school year that way because you don’t have those opportunities to form those in-person connections, so it’s extremely important to us to be able to start the school year with full force: five days a week, boots on the ground, live face-to-face classroom instruction.”

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