Private schools gravitate toward in-person instruction

Private schools gravitate toward in-person instruction
Chris Marshall, Jane Marshall and Maddox Schutter outside of Browne Academy, one of the private schools in the region that plans to offer fully in-person instruction in the fall. (Photo/Browne Academy)

By Missy Schrott |

All public school systems in Northern Virginia, including Alexandria City Public Schools, have announced that they will begin the school year with completely virtual instruction. Most local private schools, however, are taking a different approach.

In March, the spread of the novel coronavirus and state-mandated stay-at-home orders required schools in the state – public and private – to finish the 2019-2020 school year online. The abrupt shutdown resulted in rushed distance learning plans, overwhelmed parents and concerns about student learning loss.

As the 2020-2021 school year approaches, and COVID-19 continues to threaten the health of students and teachers, schools are grappling with the best way to reopen safely.

Many of Alexandria’s private elementary, middle and high schools have opted for either completely in-person or hybrid virtual/in-person models for the start of the 2020-2021 school year. While some schools have not announced their back-to-school plans yet, no local private schools have announced plans to hold fall classes completely virtually, like ACPS.

Private schools’ fall plans. *Episcopal pushed its in-person reopening date to Oct. 2. (Chart/Lyvi Sieg)

All schools that have announced hybrid or in-person models are also offering virtual learning plans for students with health risks or those who feel uncomfortable attending classes in person. In many cases, if a student chooses to start the school year remotely, they’ll have the option to switch to in-person classes at a specific point during the fall semester.

Most, if not all, schools’ plans are subject to change, should the region’s COVID-19 numbers spike or the governor’s orders change. Because of this uncertainty, many private schools have laid out flexible plans that can shift among in-person, hybrid and virtual models as needed.

Each of Alexandria’s three major private high schools looks different when it comes to plans for the fall. Episcopal High School, Alexandria’s only boarding high school, plans to have the majority of students living on campus and attending classes in person this fall. Episcopal announced on Wednesday it would delay the in-person reopening until Oct. 2 and 3 and operate virtually until then. Bishop Ireton High School plans to reopen with a hybrid model, where students will rotate between in-person and remote classes. St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School has not announced its plans for the fall.

At least five private schools in Alexandria, including Episcopal, plan to reopen at some point this fall with the majority of students attending classes in person. The other four are the Basilica School of Saint Mary, Browne Academy, Queen of Apostles Catholic School and Saint Rita Catholic School.

Saint Rita has not released the details of its back-to-school plan, except to say that the PreK-8 school will be opening in person, full-time, on Aug. 26, according to Interim Principal Bethany Hamm.

Plans for the other four schools that are reopening fully in person differ slightly but include some overlapping procedures.

Major similarities at each of the four schools are requiring face coverings, screening students and staff for symptoms of COVID-19, implementing new cleaning procedures and offering virtual instruction for students who need it.

Health screening procedures vary at each school. Episcopal is the only school to announce that it plans to test all students and staff for COVID-19 at least three times: prior to their arrival on campus, again upon arrival and again within two weeks. Episcopal students and staff will also be required to self-monitor for symptoms and input their temperature in a smartphone app every day.

At Queen of Apostles Catholic School, students will have their temperatures taken daily upon arrival at school, one at a time, as they exit their cars, according to the school’s website. Both Saint Mary and Browne Academy will require students and staff to take their temperatures and self-screen for symptoms daily prior to arrival on campus and to report the results online.

Mask protocols also differ by school.

Episcopal, Browne and Queen of Apostles will require students and staff to wear masks at all times when indoors, except when eating. At Episcopal, where students live on campus, students will also be allowed to remove masks when showering, brushing their teeth or sleeping.

Saint Mary specifies that students will need to wear masks indoors when they are not able to be at least 6 feet away from another student or faculty member.

Many schools whose reopening plans involve in-person learning and masks will incorporate outdoor breaks where students will be able to remove their masks.

As a boarding school, Episcopal will implement strict regulations in order to create a “contained campus” when necessary, according to the school’s website. This includes not holding public events, hosting prospective students, allowing nonessential visitors on campus or allowing nonessential travel off campus. The academic calendar has also been modified to include three weeks of distance learning after Thanksgiving break – a model that many colleges and universities have adopted.

At least four private schools in Alexandria have opted for hybrid in-person/ remote learning models for the start of the school year. These include Bishop Ireton, Blessed Sacrament School, Fusion Academy and Grace Episcopal School.

Similar to the private schools with fully in-person models, several of these schools’ plans involve mask requirements, health screenings, disinfecting protocols and physical distancing measures.

B.I. and Fusion Academy’s hybrid plans are focused on limiting the number of people present at school buildings.

B.I. will have half of its approximately 780 students on campus at any given time, with students divided alphabetically by last name. Last names starting with A through K will attend classes in person for two consecutive days while last names starting with L through Z will join the live classes remotely. The next two days, the groups will switch. The pattern will continue on an ongoing basis, resulting in students being on campus either two or three days per week.

B.I.’s current hybrid plan aligns with phase three of the state’s reopening requirements, but if Gov. Ralph Northam (D-VA) reverts back to phase one or two, B.I. will switch to 100% remote learning.

Fusion Academy, a much smaller school of about 65 students that specializes in one-on-one learning, plans to have no more than 40 students and staff on campus at any given time.

Patti Culbreth, head of school at Grace Episcopal School, declined to share details about Grace’s reopening plan since it is not final but said it is best defined as a hybrid approach.

Blessed Sacrament’s hybrid plan is to give students two distinctive options: in building or virtual at home, according to Principal Valerie Garcia. She did not share details of the plan.

One overarching pattern at schools that have any kind of virtual learning is a focus on synchronous learning, as opposed to asynchronous learning, meaning that students will participate in real-time instruction, rather than watch pre-recorded videos.

Virtual days in B.I.’s hybrid model are designed to feel as much like in-person classes as possible, Head of School Kathleen McNutt said.

“Our students are going to be required to have their face on the screen so that the teachers can see them,” McNutt said. “And our students will have to have on their uniform polo so that they can be present virtually just as they would be in the classroom.”

As for teachers, many of the private schools’ published back-to-school plans do not detail what will happen to teachers who are high risk or concerned about returning to teach classes in person. McNutt said B.I. is being flexible with its faculty.

“We do have a couple faculty members who made the decision to take a year’s leave of absence for their families, and we do have a couple teachers who are at high risk and so they will be teaching fully virtually, and we’ll have a proctor in the classroom for that,” McNutt said.

Because many private schools are committing to in-person or hybrid models for the coming school year, many have reported an influx of student applications.

“It’s been a very active summer for admissions,” Scott Baytosh, head of school at Alexandria Country Day School, said. “We’re fortunate that we have some capacity so we’ve been able to bring people on board.”

McNutt attributed the increased interest to the coronavirus and public schools’ remote learning plans.

“Once the [public schools] announced that they were going to be fully virtual, we certainly had an increase in applications to Bishop Ireton,” McNutt said. “That said, we have not been accepting all of them. We had to put a hold because we wanted to make sure that whatever we had in terms of enrollment would be safe within the parameters of our physical distancing protocols.”

B.I. currently has 780 students enrolled for the 20202021 school year. The school does not plan to accept more than 795 students, despite having capacity for 925, McNutt said.

Private schools that have not yet announced their plans for reopening are Alexandria Country Day School, Burgundy Farm Country Day School, Commonwealth Academy and St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School. Immanuel Lutheran School could not be reached for comment and has not outlined reopening plans on its website.

(Read more: ACPS plans to go fully online for fall 2020)