Virginia schools are preparing to reopen – some holding classes in person, others teaching online.
Whatever they decide, public systems will survive the pandemic, but some private schools may not. Now they’re evolving to stay safe and stay in business.
There are more than 800 private schools in Virginia, serving more than 100,000 students, and most depend on tuition to operate, so keeping families happy is essential.
Grace Creasy is Executive Director of the Virginia Council for Private Education – a group that advocates for and accredits private schools. She says most of her members will offer at least some in-person instruction.
“We do have a lot of parents who said, ‘If we’re going to go virtual at our school, then we can just do this ourselves.’”
But, she adds, that might not be possible for working parents who may opt for private education if public schools begin the academic year online.
“Those situations are providing us in many, many places across the state increased enrollment,” she says.
And plenty of people understand that school is more than academics – that interaction with other students is important. Private schools may also have the luxury of space to make social distancing possible. Take the Free Union Country School set on seven acres northwest of Charlottesville.
“We have a nature trail, an outdoor garden area. We have ecology and naturalist classes,” says Head of School Eric Anderson. Free Union will limit enrollment so each class has no more than nine kids, and 75% of instruction will take place outside.
“Being outside both for play and for more formal learning opportunities is really a big part of what we do and is going to feature even more prominently this coming year,” Anderson explains.
Large tents are going up, and on days when weather forces everyone inside, masks will be required, and teachers will also have face shields in case they need to get closer than six feet to help students.
The Blue Ridge School in Greene County plans a different approach. The all-boys boarding school, offering instruction to grades 9-12, will bring 180 students back in shifts beginning in mid-August. Headmaster Trip Darrin says the goal is to create a virus-free campus.
“Our plan is to have very, very strict social distancing, quarantining for the first four weeks, so two weeks for each wave of students who come to campus," he explains. "We’ll do testing before and after, and by the latter half of September we hope to loosen some of the restrictions and have a more normalized experience for the students.”
With 80% of faculty living on campus, Darrin is confident that in-person education can be provided safely until Thanksgiving when students will go home and continue learning online until after Christmas.
“Schools are doing great things with distance learning," he says. "Hybrid models could be really effective."
One concern – 25% of students at Blue Ridge come from abroad.
“Some travel restrictions may push into the school year, making it tough for some families to commit to coming to a boarding school for the whole year,” Darrin says.
As for Virginia’s 29 Catholic Schools administered by the Diocese of Richmond, each can choose to do some distance learning, but for now all plan to offer in-person classes for all grades in August with strict social distancing.
The Trump administration has said public districts must share federal pandemic aid with private schools, but Grace Creasy says a lot of them will pass.
“Many of them don’t believe that they should be accepting any kind of funding from the government.”
She says those that do get money through the CARES Act may only use it to buy equipment – like laptops or tablets, and that stuff would still belong to the public schools.
***Editor's Note: Blue Ridge School is a financial supporter of Radio IQ.