Local private schools are venturing where public schools have yet to go by welcoming students back into the classroom either full or part-time this week. Some of the advantages private education already has baked into their schools double as Covid-19-prevention tactics, and that seems to be appreciated by parents who are looking to either enroll, transfer or keep their kids in class.
“People are ready for their children to come back to school,” Dr. Edwin Gordon, the head of Congressional School, said. “They know the value of an education that a school like ours can provide to young children as well as the social and emotional nourishment. Children need to be with their peers, and for many of our families, students have been a little isolated.”
Both Saint James Catholic School and Congressional opened up classes for all grades this week, bringing students back in phases to get them acquainted with the new protocols. They’re helped by the fact that their overall enrollment is more or less 400 students while serving elementary and middle schoolers.
For comparison, Mount Daniel Elementary in Falls Church City Public Schools has an enrollment of 357 students, despite only holding classes for kindergarten through second grade.
At Congressional, Gordon said the phased re-entry means students in its middle, lower and primary levels along with early childhood learners will go back to school in daily shifts until Sept. 14, when upwards of 380 students in all grades will attend at the same time.
Sister Mary Sue Carwile, the principal of Saint James, said that her school is following suit by bringing students back in waves. So fourth and seventh graders will come back on one day, kindergarten, fifth and sixth graders the next and second and third graders the other, before all 417 students will come to school together.
While Congressional lowered its class size slightly for younger grades, it maxed out its older classes with 18 students. The two schools are generally able to keep classes at their normal capacity while maintaining state guidelines on social distancing.
Those smaller sizes grant them leeway that nearby Bishop O’Connell High School doesn’t have. Director of Communications Mary Jane Spurlock said that the roughly 1,200 student population has pushed the school to use a hybrid model.
Two cohort groups — divided alphabetically by last name — will alternate in-class days Tuesday through Friday, with classes being all-virtual on Monday. The days that students don’t physically come to school, they’re assigned projects to work on. Spurlock estimated that the normal class size of 18 at O’Connell has dropped down closer to 10 to keep up distancing requirements.
“After hours of planning and putting those plans in place, we feel confident we have taken every reasonable precaution to safely welcome students back and are looking forward to this new year together,” Carwile told the News-Press over email.
Though, as expected, the learning environment looks a bit different this year for students and teachers alike.
Carwile said children and teachers are required to wear two-ply face masks, with hand sanitizer outside every classroom and touchless water filling stations are throughout the halls. Exhaust fans are also in the windows in each classroom for added ventilation, and Saint James is using merv 13 filtration in the HVAC. Students will be eating lunch in the cafeteria, gym and parish hall to keep up distancing and each location is fully sanitized between groups, including handrails and door knobs.
Congressional employs much of the same, but what the school has done differently is set up tents around its campus that are designated for each age group. The tents can be used by teachers to hold classes outdoors, students can sit under them for lunch or they can work on schoolwork by the tents, since Congressional went through the effort of enhancing its WiFi reach across the campus.
Getting teachers on board hasn’t been the obstacle that public schools have faced either. Dr. Joseph Vorbach, the superintendent of Catholic Schools in the Arlington Diocese, told the News-Press that teachers were helping lead the reopening process along with principals throughout its schools.
And Gordon said that while some teachers were very concerned at the beginning, Congressional was able to accommodate them to the point that no teachers decided not to return for the school year.
But, most importantly, the schools appear to have won the support of parents.
“Mixed feelings, obviously, with not knowing everything about how [the virus] is transmitted,” said Chris Capannola, a teacher at George Mason High School whose son is a fifth grader at Saint James. “But Saint James, to their credit, have been very open with the communication and have told us exactly what they’re doing with the cleaning procedures, mask wearing, distancing and all that. They have us believing that, if it’s going to be done, they’re doing it the right way.”
In particular, Capannola is a fan of the extra recess session Saint James is adding to give students more time in the fresh air.
Gordon said the success of Congressional’s on-the-fly transition to online schooling in the spring segued into an increase in enrollment by about 30 students in the fall — with demand still high.
Spurlock mentioned that seven out of eight parents surveyed by O’Connell said they wanted kids to return to class in some form. She added that the school has seen a high amount of transfer students for the year. Vorbach, the Catholic schools superintendent, said they had to cap enrollment because demand was so high for accepting new students.
A conventional return hasn’t been for everyone though. Spurlock said that about 150 students opted out of O’Connell’s hybrid model and will use Zoom to take part in classes for as long as they see fit. Gordon mentioned that about 15 percent of Congressional students will be attending class virtually for their own reasons.
Saint Isidore of Seville is the new, all-online school being offered by the diocese, according to Vorbach, which has its own principal and staff dedicated to teaching students virtually throughout the year.