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Last spring, when it became clear COVID might be sticking around for a while, many parents looked for academic options beyond their local public school. Some created pods to replace or enhance the public school experience. Others looked to online schools with experience in distance learning. And still others made the leap to private schools.

“My daughter was thrilled to go back in person,” says Karen Chan of her Purnell School junior. Like many, the Pottersville boarding/day school went virtual in the spring but ramped up for the fall. “She missed her friends and teachers, and found sitting in front of a computer all day during virtual learning to be an exhausting experience. Being in-person made her feel included and part of something instead of being alone at home.” COVID isn’t the only reason parents have flooded admission offices with inquiries this past year, of course. For many, it was simply the tipping point for those already familiar with the merits of an independent education—merits which also have made safe, in-person studies possible.

A LIMITED NUMBER OF STUDENTS

Parents often cite small classes and the focus on the individual learner as their top reasons for choosing private school. “This does not change during challenging times, we just reinvent how things are done,” says Betsy Thornton, director of admissions at Union Catholic Regional High School in Scotch Plains. A limited number of students makes it easier to keep desks six feet apart, while enabling students and staff to navigate common spaces while social distancing. Even when private schools do educate virtually (i.e. because they chose a hybrid model or as a temporary safety precaution), a limited number of students allows for more tailored lessons and increased engagement.

“It comes down to a numbers game,” says Maplewood mom Jessica Mason May, whose fourth and sixth graders attend St. Rose of Lima Academy in Short Hills. “At the end of the day, they have significantly fewer students. And that makes everything more manageable.”

When COVID hit, Newark Academy in Livingston reacted quickly to the threat by exploring “ways of providing all students with the significant benefit of in-person learning, while maintaining their health and safety as a priority,” says Dr. Renée A. Walker, the school’s director of communications and marketing, and other schools did the same. Newark Academy was able to quickly redirect funds upwards of $500,000 to make the campus safe for the fall 2020 semester. In a crisis, money (and access to that money) makes a difference.

FREEDOM TO INNOVATE

It’s hard not to envy Newark Academy’s more than a dozen outdoor areas transformed into tented classrooms or the indoor spaces reconfigured for maximum social distancing. But it isn’t just that private schools are flush—not all are—but rather that they can quickly pivot regarding priorities, and do what works for that particular school with less red tape. Aside from mandatory masks and plexiglass desk dividers, parents and schools found a myriad of ways to keep in-person learning safe—from dedicated cohort classes and repurposing spaces for extra sprawl to in-class lunching and offering virtual learning upon request. One school decided to move fitness classes such as Zumba, meditation and goat yoga outdoors.

But Newark Academy isn’t the only private school with the flexibility to pivot quickly. Schools like Gill St. Bernard’s have also been able to make notable changes to schedules that have made a major impact on its ability to offer in-person learning at its Gladstone campus. “Lower and Middle School students are placed in learning pods,” says Sid Rowell, the head of school for Gill St. Bernard’s. “Students remain in their assigned classrooms, and Related Arts teachers, such as art, music, and drama, travel to their students. In the Lower School, our Related Arts teachers spend a week in one classroom before rotating, and in the Middle School they spend a quarter (8 weeks) per grade. Both scenarios provide the optimum environment for in-depth, project-based learning.”

“For our Upper School students, GSB shifted to 90-minute blocks for classes to reduce extra interactions on any given day,” says Rowell. “In addition, we alternate four-block days so students can attend on alternate days if they wish to reduce their exposures to others even more. To retain all our programming and curriculum offerings, we added a block to the schedule to allow for the fact that classes have one-third to one-half fewer students per classroom. We also created new classrooms from other larger repurposed spaces.”

PROACTIVE HEALTH MEASURES

With fewer kids and the ability to tap funds, private schools are able to put state-of-the-art UV cleaning machines and room cleaning protocols to work. Newark Academy conducts morning temperature checks taken via high-tech thermal imaging equipment installed at each entrance; the school also upgraded its air filtration system so that kids and parents can breathe easier, literally and figuratively. COVID screenings via pool testing (combining samples for any sign of the virus) were noted by several parents as a sanity saver. Short Hills-based parent Jordana Horn Gordon, whose kids both attend local private schools offering pool testing, called it a game changer. “It makes it possible to actually have in-person school, daily, for which I am beyond grateful.”

At Gill St. Bernard’s, scheduling paired with pods has made a difference. “At lunch, students eat in their class groups to reduce extra contact,” adds Rowell. “In our hallways, student traffic is one-way, and all bathrooms are single occupancy. Outside, we added seating areas for classes and dining outside during warm weather. We are outside as much as possible.”

MAKING THE LEAP

The first step is researching what kind of independent school is a good fit for your child. Secular or religious? Coed or single sex? Sports obsessed or artsy? Progressive or traditional? Academically rigorous or whole-child focused? Sites like niche.com and NAIS.org can help you narrow down your list. Explore school websites, and take note of tour dates (likely virtual right now but that could change), information about interviews and financial aid.

Application deadlines may have passed, but don’t let that be a deterrent. “We understand that families are going through a lot,” says Thornton. “Some schools may have an opening in a given grade after the deadline,” says Carole J. Everett, executive director of the New Jersey Association of Independent Schools. “It’s always worth a call to the admissions office to see if there is space, or if a family may apply for a potential spot on a waiting list.”

Don’t be intimidated by the listed cost. Private schools want to have socio-economic diversity as well as other types of diversity, says Everett, adding that they have various financial aid policies and budgets. This means that even middle income parents may qualify for tuition assistance as there’s typically no set income cap (every family is unique and schools recognize that). Just be sure to submit financial forms and documentation by deadline since budgets are usually capped for a particular year. After thorough investigation and soul-searching, you might find that private school is the right fit for you.

—Jennifer Kantor is an education, parenting and lifestyle writer and a Maplewood mom of two.

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