Our View: Differing back-to-school approaches

Our View: Differing back-to-school approaches
Episcopal High School (Photo Credit: Episcopal High School Facebook)

Last week, we wrote about Alexandria City Public Schools’ back-to-school plan, which involves 100% virtual learning for the start of the 2020-2021 school year. This week, we took a look at the other schools in Alexandria – the private and religious institutions.

While some of these schools are still undecided, the schools that have announced their back-to-school plans have largely favored some degree of in-person instruction.

For the most part, this is unsurprising.

Overall, private schools tend to have smaller populations than public schools. This rings especially true in Alexandria, where the public school system has been facing a capacity crunch that makes the idea of starting in-person classes in already-congested classrooms a logistical nightmare.

ACPS serves more than 15,000 total students. The largest private school in Alexandria, St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School, which serves students pre-K through grade 12, has just a fraction of that at 1,140 students.

Smaller student populations and less overcrowding mean it’s easier to establish distance among students and staff and monitor them for COVID-19 symptoms. It’s also easier to establish hybrid virtual/in-person plans.

Take Bishop Ireton High School: The school has divided its 780 students alphabetically by last name so that half the student body will be on campus at any given time. The groups rotate in and out every two days, attending classes remotely on the out-of-classroom days. The model is feasible for an administration that needs to develop a plan for only 780 students who go to school on one campus. It gets a lot more complicated when you try to apply the model to ACPS, a division that manages almost 20 times the students, 18 times the buildings and three times the grade levels.

In addition to having smaller student populations, private schools are independently funded, and they aren’t necessarily bound by the regulations that public schools must follow, such as transportation and special education requirements.

There’s no doubt that reopening in any capacity is a major challenge for both private and public schools, but for these reasons, it’s a little more feasible for private schools.

As for the individual reopening plans at Alexandria’s private schools, each model seems to make sense for its institution on the surface.

Episcopal High School, the only all-boarding school in Alexandria, is inviting students back to campus for full-time instruction starting on Oct. 2. This makes sense for a boarding school, where leaders can limit the comings and goings to and from campus. They’ve also committed to testing all students and staff for COVID-19 multiple times – an admirable and necessary feat for a school following an in-person model.

While the other in-person schools haven’t committed to testing, which could end up hurting them in the long run, most plans we’ve seen are highly detailed when it comes to safety protocols – from distancing and mask-wearing to symptom screening and temperature checks.

These plans are clearly well thought out, but when school is back in session, the safety of students and staff is going to come to down to two things: enforcement and adaptation.

Schools will need to strictly enforce the plans that they’ve spelled out, whether that means sending home students with temperatures, disciplining those who refuse to wear masks or keeping desks 6 feet apart. If the regulations and measures aren’t enforced, an outbreak is inevitable.

Of course, an outbreak could be inevitable anyway, which brings us to adaptation: Schools must be ready to adapt to a new plan if their initial back-to-school model doesn’t work out. If in-person protocols are too hard to enforce, switch to hybrid. If there’s an outbreak of COVID-19 cases, switch to virtual.

These back-to-school plans look safe on paper, but only time will tell if they’re sustainable.