CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Charlotte Observer) - After Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools announced they would move to remote learning for the majority of the fall semester, SouthLake Christian Academy started receiving admissions inquiries almost immediately.
On the first day alone, the Huntersville private school received more than 100 inquiries and 30 completed applications. Within a week, the number of applications had ballooned to over 80, and several grades had wait lists.
It’s a familiar scene for private schools across the Charlotte area. Unlike CMS and other local public school systems, many private schools are opting to start the fall semester with in-person learning five days a week.
Of the 40 largest private schools in Mecklenburg County, 31 have publicly announced that they intend to hold at least some classes on campus. The vast majority — including some of the largest schools in the region like Providence Day School and Charlotte Christian School — have plans for a full return.
Governor Roy Cooper announced July 9 that public schools will reopen under “Plan B,” which allows schools to open for in-person instruction with new social distancing and safety protocols, including required face coverings and daily symptom screening. The state’s plans also allow schools to switch to remote learning.
But private schools are not beholden to the state’s new guidelines. The decision as to which safety measures to take is left up to each individual school, and as a result, reopening plans vary widely even among schools.
At some schools, for example, face masks are required whenever social distancing is impossible, while others are touting an optional mask policy. Some are restricting which visitors are allowed on campus and others are slashing activities like field trips. One school is asking its parents to supply hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes.
The result is a wide range of new policies, many of them still in development, that private school teachers and administrators say are uniquely situated to their schools’ situations. But most of the policies are made with the same goal in mind: bringing kids back to campus.
‘AN ENTIRELY DIFFERENT MACHINE’
CMS announced it will hold in-person classes for the first two weeks of school, rotating students in a few at a time for orientation. Schools will then go virtual for the rest of the semester — a measure that some private schools say they will not have to take due to their individual circumstances.
“The public school system — that’s an entirely different machine with a whole lot more people and a whole lot more moving parts involved,” Back Creek Christian Academy Principal Jonathan Branch said.
SouthLake Christian Academy Head of Schools Matthew Kerlin said his school’s small size means classes will be able to return to campus in the fall. In deciding whether to reopen, the school also monitored the number of COVID-19 cases in the zip codes of its students, which Kerlin said is very low.
“Our school is not packed with students,” Kerlin said. “We’ve been operating under capacity for the past two or three years, so we actually have space to be able to put desks apart from one another and to manage our movement around campus.”
Though private schools do not have to adhere to the same rules as public schools, several administrators said they consulted the new guidelines, as well as recommendations from government agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, in formulating their own plans. Schools have also turned to guidance from national agencies like the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Association of Independent Schools.
To prepare for reopening, schools are spacing out desks, capping class sizes and redoubling their cleaning efforts. Some have also taken to installing new technology, like video cameras, in anticipation of livestreaming classes for kids who are sick or must quarantine.
SouthLake history teacher Danielle Handlogten said that in addition to rearranging her classroom furniture, she has also been working on revamping her curriculum. She plans to utilize more classwide discussions as opposed to small group work.
“We’re all working towards the common goal of making this adaptation as smooth as we possibly can not only for us, but for our students,” Handlogten said. “Obviously, there has to be changes, and we’re trying to work within that to provide a great situation for the students.”
Some private schools are also offering virtual learning options for their families. The availability of these plans vary, however. While some schools are offering this option to any family that wants it, others are requiring parents to justify their request.
Matthew Rich, a parent with two children at Back Creek Christian Academy, said it is important to him that his school offer virtual learning. When he first heard that the school plans to hold on-campus, he immediately contacted the principal to see if an alternative would be available.
“I have been watching very carefully what is going on with the virus. I have followed the stories of the daycare centers in our area, one not five minutes from me where five children and a worker were all testing positive just a couple weeks ago,” Rich said. “I have several medical personnel in my family, all of whom agree that the benefits of being in person are outweighed by the risks at this point.”
Back Creek will offer a virtual option and is currently finalizing details for such a plan, according to Branch.
A few schools are starting the semester with “hybrid options” that blend in-person instruction and remote learning by bringing kids to campus for part of the week. The goal is to limit the number of students on campus to promote social distancing.
Charlotte Latin School has developed a four-level “risk matrix” and will start its school year at the “medium risk” level which involves in-person learning for its lower school students and a hybrid plan for its middle school and upper school students. Head of School Chuck Baldecchi said he consulted colleagues across the globe at schools in Australia, Singapore and Copenhagen to help develop this plan.
“When I talk with them, especially the folks that are in the southern hemisphere and are back in school, they really advised how important it was to start slowly in the school year,” Baldecchi said. “Don’t try to bring everybody back all at once until you understand the logistics and how it will work for your students and your faculty.”
As schools, both public and private, announce their plans, parents are reevaluating their children’s enrollment in their schools.
Several parents with kids in private schools said they are pleased their kids will be able to return to in-person learning. Robin Troy Pugh, a parent with three children at SouthLake Christian Academy, said both she and her husband both work and struggled to support their children during the spring when they were learning at home.
“Three months of it was rough,” Pugh said. “I jokingly told my parent friends, ‘Look, we’re moving to whatever country we have to move to, for them to go back to school in the fall because we can’t do another semester.’”
“Our kids really can’t afford another semester of learning at home,” she added. “They are not going to get the same educational experience, and we are all willing to take the extra steps needed to keep them safe so that they can return to campus.”
Some private schools are continuing to enroll students and have experienced an uptick in applications, many of them from parents of children attending public schools. Splashy advertisements touting reopening plans have overtaken some schools’ websites, inviting parents to apply.
Derek Durst, a parent of two children, said he applied to Arborbrook after hearing that Union County Public Schools will use a 4-day weekly rotation schedule, limiting the number of students on campus each day, and will require students to wear masks. Arborbrook Christian Academy, by contrast, will hold class in-person four days a week and has an optional mask policy for students under 11.
Though the switch will cost roughly $15,000, Durst said it will be worth it due to the mask policy and the ability to send their kids to school. Both he and his wife work, and they had found it difficult to balance their jobs with their young kids’ remote learning in the spring.