O'Neal Crossing

Sue Agazzi holds a stop sign for parents and students crossing at The O'Neal School in Southern Pines on Aug, 14, 2018.

The coronavirus pandemic has created extraordinary circumstances for schools as they prepare to reopen for the 2020-2021 academic year.

As public and charter schools work to schedule students so that their buildings are never more than half full, private schools are striking a balance between an influx of applications over the last few weeks and their own health and safety measures.

While late-summer inquiries are nothing unusual, last month The O’Neal School saw five times the usual number of application submissions for July. O’Neal, which serves students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, enrolled the most students of any private school in Moore County.

In March, private schools opted to discontinue on-campus learning at the same time that the state ordered public schools to close as the coronavirus pandemic gained momentum in North Carolina and across the country.

Where the state is limiting public schools’ reopening for the time being, Moore County’s private schools are planning a return to business as usual — or close to it. Schools are reconfiguring classrooms to allow for greater distance and planning the logistics of the school day to minimize intermingling between classes.

Students, faculty and staff at O’Neal will be required to wear face coverings. Exceptions will be handled on an individual basis.

“The school is committed to delivering our full educational experience, and this includes maintaining small class sizes for our students,” O’Neal Head of School John Elmore told families in a letter. “Each division has determined the maximum number of students we can fully and safely serve at each grade level, and we will not exceed that number.”

Enrollment numbers tend to fluctuate for the first few weeks of the school year, and O’Neal expects those changes to be more volatile than ever. But several grades in its lower and middle schools –– grouping grades K-8 –– are enrolled to capacity and new applicants are being placed on waiting lists.

Sandhills Classical Christian School also noted a dramatic spike in applications as the state rolled out its directives for public schools’ reopening. Moore County Schools original proposal for reopening would have brought students back to schools just one day a week, with four days of remote learning.

“That, in a matter of a couple days, flooded our system,” said Gene Liechty, development director at Sandhills Classical Christian.

That week, the school received 60 applications from prospective new students.

The public schools have since refined their plans to include two days of in-class instruction, but Liechty said that SCCS is still set to double the growth that it would have achieved in a normal year. Most of the new students who have enrolled in the last week are elementary and middle schoolers, and three of its elementary grades are waitlisted.

“Parents are actually a bit panicked in regard to what they’re going to do this fall,” said Liechty.

“The growth that we were already seeing has doubled in response to Gov. Cooper’s order to public schools. Our 6.8 percent growth that we thought we were going to experience in K-8 going into this year has increased to 14 percent growth.”

SCCS, which is in the process of expanding, serves elementary school students on its campus in Whispering Pines. Its middle and high school classrooms are on the campus of St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Southern Pines.

Thursday is its first day of classes for the 2020-2021 school year.

Like most other schools, SCCS closed in March and finished the spring semester with online learning. Though lessons were delivered virtually, assignments turned in online and testing suspended, homework was still required and graded.

“With our distance learning, we weren’t testing but we could assess how kids were doing,” Liechty said.

The school hasn’t been in a position to accept every applicant, partly because it’s limiting class sizes to enable students to maintain a safe distance while they’re in class.

“Small class sizes are even more limited now because we’re not filling them up to 18 students like we would have. we’ve kept them smaller because it’s part of the new protocol,” said Liechty.

“Many things about this new academic year are going to look different out of necessity because of concerns. We want to be good community players as we continue educating kids.”

(4) comments

Kent Misegades

Thales Academy, the state’s largest independent K-12 school system, reported a huge 20% jump in enrollment when they opened for the 2020-2021 school year on July 20th. Home school enrollment could increase by 20%, according to NCHE. This will logically result in a significant drop in MCS government school enrollment and should also lead to a reduction in its headcount, budget and tax burden on Moore County residents.

Rachel Cullen

For those who cannot send their children to private school, it would be worth it to gather with neighbors and see if a neighborhood school could be arranged. Five or more families could combine resources and higher a college student to supervise their children in school work. This would be extreamly helpful for parents who can’t be home with their children due to work. Furthermore, please consider other nationally accredited home school programs outside of what Moore County Schools are offering. If MCSB does not want to educate children in person five days a week, they should not receive the funding for your child. Take your child’s educations and funds elsewhere. Holding kids educations hostage to unscientifically founded political whims is disgraceful. Kids deserve better than this, it’s time they and their parents are the ultimate deciders and directors of their educations. Time for School Choice.

Dan Roman

"...unscientifically founded political whims..."? Covid-19 has killed 154,000+ people just in the US. Its existence and the obvious methods of preventing spread (until an effective vaccine or an quick, effective cure are found, if ever) are hardly unscientifically founded. It isn't as if school systems don't want the children back full time, but the pandemic exists and school systems have to do what they can to try to continue the kids education while doing so safely. Arguing that tax dollars should be denied to public school systems is contra-productive, that just feeds into the hands of those trying to fan the flames of rich versus poor divisiveness and holding the public school systems hostage to politicization.

Leigh Thomas

Sorry, new to this. Trying to figure it out. Wondering why I see your name on almost every post. I see a comment and almost know your name is going to be there. Someone needs to stand up to you if only to make republicans not look like dumb asses. Have nothing else to do in the morning???? I might think like you but have more class than to make our cause look stupid.

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