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.”