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Area private schools plan for full in-person reopening, see increased interest

Area private schools plan for full in-person reopening, see increased interest

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Braxton Carter, a teacher at Sandusky Middle School, had planned to enroll his 5-year-old foster son in kindergarten at Lynchburg City Schools’ Sandusky Elementary this fall.

But, when the division announced kindergarteners would only be in school buildings two days per week at the start of the school year, Carter said he was worried his son might fall behind.

“Going into kindergarten, he needs full day [instruction], five days a week,” Carter said.

So, Carter said he looked into an option that would have his son in school every day: private school.

Across the country, public schools are going online-only or having students in school just a few days per week for the start of the school year. Private schools, on the other hand, are opening their doors wide and offering five days of in-person learning to students.

That’s the case in the Lynchburg area where no public school division plans to have any student in school five full days per week. Area school divisions currently plan to have students in school a few days each week and learning virtually other days.

Bedford County Public Schools comes the closest to a “normal” schedule for its younger students, with their current plan allowing Pre-K through sixth graders to attend in-person school five days per week, but the school day will be slightly shorter.

Private schools, such as Virginia Episcopal School, Desmond T. Doss Christian Academy and James River Day School, said they’re seeing parents, like Carter, show an interest in their schools as they announce plans to reopen for all students for five days per week of in-person learning.

Chris Button, associate head of school at VES, said the school will use a hybrid model of learning because it serves ninth through 12th-grade students. Using complementary online and in-person aspects will allow students to stay on track with their courses if they have to miss in-person classes due to quarantine or other conflicts.

VES is making a lot of changes to in-person instruction, Button said. Not all of the school’s classrooms allow for effective teaching with social distancing, so they’ll be adapting some outdoor spaces to serve as classrooms. Button said some classes at the school enroll about 18 students, but many average around 12. To allow for social distancing, Button said no class will have more than 15 students.

“We want the most risk-averse situation we can possibly create for both students and ... our faculty,” Button said.

A unique challenge VES faces for reopening, Button said, is it serves both day students and boarding students. While day school students come to school for the school day and live off campus, boarders live on campus. Because day students move on and off campus, Button said they pose the largest risk to the boarders’ “bubble.”

In order to mitigate the risk and decrease the chance for contact, day school students will not eat with boarders and won’t be in close-contact with boarders during “down time” on campus.

“We pride ourselves on not having a big division between day [students] and boarders,” Button said. “It’s going to feel different in that regard.”

Button said the school has seen an increase in interest from local families but, because of the decrease in class size and other restrictions, they’ve nearly hit their capacity of around 80, day students and 172 boarders.

Stephen Doss, principal at Desmond T. Doss Christian Academy, said the school plans to open for face-to-face instruction for the 2020-21 school year.

“We’ve had a number of families that have come to us this summer because of what some of the other schools are doing for instruction,” he said. “They want their kids to be in school every day.”

Doss said the school might get five or 10 new students during the summer. This year they’ve already received more than 20, and he expects more in the coming weeks.

“We’ve seen an increase in interest from the public school sector that normally we don’t see,” Doss said.

Peter York, head of schools at James River Day School, said he’s seen an “overwhelming” interest and number of new applications for the 2020-21 school year. James River Day School, which serves kindergarten through eighth grade, plans to begin the school year with all students on campus.

In a typical spring to summer season, he said, he might see six to 10 new students. This year, he’s already received more than 30 new students, not counting kindergarten.

“We are partners with our public schools,” York said. “We all teach kids, and the public schools are just in a tough spot.”

York said classrooms are being adapted to comply with social distance requirements and masks will be required, but teachers and parents are excited for students to be back in school.

“The benefits of being back, far exceed the risks,” he said.

Andrew Glover said he is considering moving his two Lynchburg City Schools students to a private school as well, but he’s conflicted.

Glover’s two sons will be in first and second grades in the fall, and, like Carter, he said he’s concerned about the division’s current plan to have Pre-K through fifth-grade students receiving instruction remotely three days per week.

“You can’t learn to read and write in a virtual environment,” Glover said.

Because students in the division will be learning virtually three days per week, based on the current plan, Glover said he fears parents will be forced to become their child’s teacher.

While he doesn’t approve of the division’s plan for fall reopening, he said, his family loves the community at T.C. Miller Elementary School for Innovation and they don’t want his sons to potentially lose their spots at the school if they were to leave for a semester or year.

“Had they not gotten into T.C. Miller, we would have already been in a private school,” he said.

Glover said he’s considering Liberty Christian Academy and Timberlake Christian School as possible private school options for his sons.

According to a post on the Liberty Christian Academy’s website from Head of Schools Mark Hine, Liberty Christian Academy plans to begin the 2020-21 school year with full day, in-class instruction for all students on Aug. 29. The post said the school may delay that start date for one week to allow more time for preparation.

The school will use facilities at Thomas Road Baptist Church for additional classroom space that will help allow the school to meet social distancing requirements. Liberty Christian Academy will “strongly encourage” face masks when possible and require them when social distancing is not possible, the post said.

Carter said he enrolled his son in Timberlake Christian School, which has released its draft reopening plan to its families — that includes in-person instruction five days per week for students — but the school has not made that plan public. Requests for an interview or a copy of the plan were denied by Timberlake Christian School.

Carter said he thinks the Lynchburg City Schools’ current plan is the safest and best option it has under the circumstances. While they want students in buildings more days a week, Lynchburg City School administrators have said their transportation challenges and classroom space don’t allow them to offer that safely with social distancing requirements.

“I wish he could go to Lynchburg City Schools, I want him there so bad,” Carter said. “They have a lot to offer and he would have been with a great teacher.”

Lynchburg City Schools spokesperson Cindy Babb said the division still is enrolling students for the upcoming school year, and it is too soon to tell how their reopening plans and the pandemic may affect enrollment.

Carter said he worries his son not receiving in-person instruction five days a week as he starts kindergarten might cause him to fall further behind. As a middle school teacher, Carter said he thinks middle and high school students are better able to complete online assignments, so the division’s plan for those students to begin the school year online and transition to two days in school buildings won’t be as bad.

“I don’t think it’s ideal, none of this is ideal,” Carter said.

Jamey Cross covers education. Reach her at (434) 385-5532.

Jamey Cross covers education. Reach her at (434) 385-5532.

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