- The Washington Times
Sunday, July 26, 2020

Like their public school counterparts, D.C.-area private schools are weighing safety and students’ needs in their reopening plans amid the pandemic. But some are finding the logistics less cumbersome, given their smaller classes and fewer students to bus.

“At this point we have schools that are planning to reopen five days a week in-person, and they’re able to maintain the 6-foot [social distancing] requirement,” Joseph Vorbach, schools superintendent for the Diocese of Arlington, told The Washington Times. “Most of our children arrive at school with their parents or in a carpool.”

The diocese oversees nearly 40 schools, which are slated to open using a hybrid of part-time in-person instruction and online learning.

In the Archdiocese of Washington, officials at have joined D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser in considering in-person learning. The city’s public schools will find out their plan on Friday, and the archdiocese anticipates announcing its plan in August.

“Our schools office is in the middle of crafting the reopening plan for this fall,” said a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, which oversees Catholic preschools, primary schools and high schools in the District and five counties in Maryland.

According to a 2015 survey by the National Center for Education Statistics, private schools have an average pupil-to-teacher ratio of 11.9-to-1 and public schools of 16.2-to-1. The smaller classes allow more flexibility in reopening options and offer a more controlled environment to isolate students in cohorts for contract tracing and social distancing, school officials say.

Private schools also aren’t beholden to public school strategies: Public schools in Fairfax County — Virginia’s largest district, with nearly 200,000 students — will provide online-only instruction this fall. But The Potomac School — a K-12 school with more than 1,000 students in McLean — has told parents it plans to reopen “with some synchronous distance learning elements to supplement in-person instruction.”

“When the campus reopens, Potomac will have a variety of protocols in place to promote safety and mitigate risk, including daily wellness screenings, co-hosting, social distancing, and the use of face coverings, among others,” said a school statement provided to The Washington Times.

Georgetown Preparatory School in North Bethesda, a Jesuit school, also plans to open for the fall with Zoom-based classes for students and faculty who can’t return to campus.

Creative solutions also are being offered, such as Mater Amores Montessori School in Ashton, where officials have posted tents around its 13-acre campus to host outdoor classes for the fall.

Meanwhile, officials at the Landon School, an all-boys college preparatory school in Bethesda, say their preference is in-person instruction, but they pushed a decision on face-to-face and/or online learning to Aug. 21, less than a week before the term’s start. They’re also asking families to avoid air travel and visits to areas with large COVID-19 breakouts beginning in mid-August.

“This is not so much a quarantining as a ‘settling-in’ time when we are asking that, to prepare for the school year and be eligible to come back to campus August 26, all students and employees abide by the terms of the social compact in a particularly mindful way,” Headmaster Jim Neill and Board of Trustees Chair Scott Harris said in a letter to parents.

A key factor in reopening is infection rates, which have been increasing in the District, Maryland and Virginia.

“No matter how hard we try, we cannot guarantee a COVID-free environment,” Bryan K. Garman, head of Sidwell-Friends, a Quaker school in Northwest, said in a letter to parents.

Mr. Garman said the elite preparatory school once attended by Malia and Sasha Obama has pushed the reopening announcement expected this month to August 10.

At Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda, a Catholic all-girls academy, leaders say nothing has been finalized for the fall.

“The faculty are designing their units of study to be adaptable so that they are prepared to deliver instruction in person or virtually,” said a statement from Stone Ridge Head of School Catherine Ronan Karrels.

One bright spot for private schools this summer has been increased inquiries about enrollment from parents of public school children. A leading private school association says that many schools had seen increases in queries from parents of children considering switching from public to private schools, but it cautions that final numbers won’t be known until September.

“One of the things we’ve found in a survey in May was that many schools had extended their enrollment deadlines and were accepting enrollments even further in to the summer,” said Myra McGovern, spokeswoman for the National Association of Independent Schools.

• Christopher Vondracek can be reached at cvondracek@washingtontimes.com.

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