Friday, May 20, 2022

With public districts going remote, many private and charter schools reopen in-person

Senior High School students attend a help session on college applications last week at Cape Fear Academy as the private school prepares to reopen in-person with extensive Covid-19 protocols in place. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Cape Fear Academy)
Senior High School students attend a help session on college applications last week at Cape Fear Academy as the private school prepares to reopen in-person with extensive Covid-19 protocols in place. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Cape Fear Academy)

SOUTHEASTERN, N.C. — Local public school districts’ decision to begin the school year remotely has prompted an uptick in interest in alternative education options.

For many working parents, the interest is borne of necessity. With childcare programs filling up, the new Covid-19 reality has placed many families in a financial (and emotional) bind.

Related: Brunswick Schools sticks with remote start despite pressure to reopen, split board

Though public and private schools alike have made strides improving their remote learning models, there’s still a common sentiment that attending school virtually provides a sub-par educational experience, especially for younger students.

Governor Roy Cooper recommended schools begin the 2020-2021 academic year under Phase B (blending in-person and remote instruction) but concerns over containing the spread of the virus, liability, and logistics have prompted many public schools to start with Plan C (remote-only).

While public schools in New Hanover and Brunswick County kick off remotely Monday, small independent schools across the region are opening in-person.

Without the same red tape and scale of operation required in most public schools, independent schools often have the flexibility to more confidently implement Covid-19 precautions in an in-person learning environment.

In-person

Last week, Charter Day School in Leland began classes with students spaced six feet apart, with some but not all children masked in the classroom. The small Wilmington private school New Horizons Elementary School installed plexiglass between desks.

Island Montessori School will begin next week with a blended learning plan, alternating weeks in-person between two cohorts of students. The girls-only GLOW Academy will begin with a phased-in approach, with each grade level attending one day during the first two weeks.

“As a smaller school, GLOW Academy does not have to choose a ‘one size fits all’ option and can be more nimble and data-driven,” according to GLOW spokesperson Margee Herring.

At Friends School of Wilmington (FSW), PK-5th grade students will attend in-person, with masks required at all times indoors outside of meals and constant six-foot spacing among students. Middle school students at the small Quaker school will be given the option to attend full-time in-person, blend in-person and remote learning, or attend virtually.

The school is also staggering arrival times to allow students and staff enough time to properly screen for temperature and symptoms daily.

Cameron Francisco, FSW Director of Communications, said the school has a capacity of 220 students but, currently, less than 200 enrolled. Francisco said FSW has able to safely reopen in-person due to its small size and physical layout. Classrooms all have their own entrances, exits, and bathrooms. Time in shared hallways will be limited and outdoor learning will be frequent.

“We know that we’re very fortunate and privileged to be able to have small numbers,” Fransico said. “When you scale it down, it just becomes a lot easier, between the red tape, physical space, and the number of students.”

At the same time, Fransico sees FSW’s small, maximum 18:1 student-teacher ratio that serves as a major selling point for the school as a potential downfall. With many siblings enrolled in different grades, one positive Covid-19 case could end up shifting several cohorts of students to remote learning all at once, as parents monitor conditions for spread of the virus.

“It’s kind of that double-edged sword,” he said. “It feels a bit like a Jenga tower.”

FSW received a swell of new interest in July, Fransico said. While the school’s admissions office can typically be flexible, but this year, FSW chose to put a hard cap on class size.

Parent surveys reflected a range of confidence in returning in-person. “It’s as you would expect. A few on the extreme ends of the spectrum. From totally ready, totally comfortable, we’ve got this, to very nervous, very worried, very anxious.”

Interest tripled

In June and July, Cape Fear Academy (CFA) received three times as many inquiries as usual.

Head of School Ed Ellison said CFA will leave windows open and doors propped whenever feasible. A new security manager will keep an eye on the open doorways, intended to keep airflow moving. With new exterior tents, students will eat lunch outdoors when able and wear masks indoors at all times outside of meals.

New water refill stations will help reduced shared surfaces and the spread of germs.

“We’re not perfect but we feel we’re making significant investments,” Ellison said. “We know we cannot eliminate all the risk.”

Students who choose to learn remotely will be able to participate by tuning into a live video feed of their in-person classroom. Still, Ellison said teachers do not expect — nor do they want — remote learners glued to screens all day.

“We’re mindful about how much screen time we want children having. It would not be good to have a young person online five to six hours a day,” he said.

CFA will begin the school year under “yellow” conditions, one of four phases that indicate the severity of in-person restrictions. Should Covid-19 conditions shift locally, CFA will quickly transition into one of its other planned learning plans. “It’s tricky. This is very tricky and very fluid,” Ellison said of panning around the virus. “We’re trying create plans that offer the most flexibility, so that we can adapt to a changing environment.”

Since announcing the plan to reopen in-person, Ellison said he thinks most parents were relieved. Even so, the new working conditions can evoke anxiety. “This is not easy for anyone. It doesn’t matter which role you’re playing in this arrangement.

“No one is coming at this from the position of doing something rash or harsh or lacking compassion. Teachers are now becoming essential workers. They will be exposed to some level of risk and we recognize and acknowledge there is anxiety related to that,” he said.


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