Brown School and Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons both plan to open this fall with most students in school as they also make the case for private schools at a moment when public education has never been so uncertain.
School leaders said they were confident they can manage the logistics of in-person instruction for all students within existing facilities while adhering to social distancing protocols required for all schools across the state.
At Brown School, some parents have already opted to continue virtual learning, said Patti Vitale, head of school. But the school is preparing to welcome back most of its students this fall, shrinking already-small classes and utilizing other spaces for classrooms.
“We are planning on having virtual learning for some families and in-house for others,” Vitale said.
A small in-person summer program has given the school a rehearsal on spacing and moving around with students as well as conducting daily health screens; the restrictions and limitations they will have in place for the school are already in motion.
“These are all things we are going to have put in place next year,” Vitale said, before correcting herself. “Not next year, in September, just a few weeks.”
In past summers the school would host around 75 kids, she said. This summer they capped it around 25 students. Like when school returns next month, Brown teachers are maximizing outdoor lessons and airflow inside. The school plans to maximize points of entry and stagger arrival times to limit student contact.
She said they are telling families to send kids to school with yoga mats or lawn chairs as they look to maximize class time outdoors when the weather cooperates. “There will be class outside,” she said.
Most Brown classes will range in size from 11-13 students, Vitale said, with some larger spaces in the school accommodating 16-18 students. She said in the past class sizes were typically around 16 students. Classes will start out in a hybrid option, with students working from home able to watch live lessons going on in class, Vitale said.
The uncertainty pervasive across all education options this year has driven new interest in alternatives to public schools, but the limitations of remote learning complicates the picture. Vitale said there was some fall-off in enrollment in the spring when schools were forced to go entirely virtual; she said some of those families have returned for the new school year. But Vitale said she has also heard from young families.
“We are getting a lot of calls about kindergarten,” she said. “As schools begin to release plans parents are concerned and they are calling.”
She said the school has the space to accept more students but has to be careful in how many new students it enrolls given the new spacing demands.
‘Geometry’ at ND-BG
Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons and other Catholic schools in the Albany diocese are planning for in-person classes as long as state officials do not close off that option before next month.
“We are planning in person unless told otherwise,” Bishop Gibbons Principal Kiante Jones said.
The school, which in past years has had about 25 desks in a classroom, has limited the room to about 16-18 students desks, using a handmade device to ensure they were all spaced at least six feet apart. Teachers were asked to take home extra materials and furniture, maximizing every square foot of classroom space.
“It was a nice geometry experiment,” Jones said.
The school plans to increase time between classes and limit traffic to one-way in certain areas. Students will have to move between classes because of the scheduling complexity of older students, which take a wider variety of courses than younger students. The school serves about 230 students across grades 6-12.
“Based on our small size and some creative scheduling, we will be able to [bring students back] if allowed by the governor to be in person, and that’s my preference,” Jones said. “Virtual learning can never take the place of the magic between teachers and kids in the classroom.”
Jones said the school is planning for virtual and hybrid options in case they have to limit capacity further or transition fully online. The school has been purchasing new cameras and other equipment so teachers can teach live classes remotely if needed. If kids need to stay home for health reasons, they will be able to tune into class lessons.
Jones said school leaders and teachers are looking for ways to continue student activities and clubs in socially distant ways that still give students a sense of normalcy.
The school is limited by grade level in how much space it has for new students, but Jones said Bishop Gibbons and other Catholic schools in the area have seen increased interest in recent months – especially families who are looking for in-person instruction for their children.
“I think it’s an important point that many families are looking for in person,” Jones said.