Dan Frank remembers that one week earlier this summer, just after school officials in Richmond and the counties of Chesterfield and Henrico announced that they would be going virtual for the start of the 2020-21 school year.
“Our phone was ringing off the hook,” said Frank, who is head of school at The Steward School, a private school in Henrico County.
Many of those calls were from parents of children in public school divisions simply looking for in-person options.
Despite the interest, “we didn’t change our enrollment,” said Frank, noting that school will open Monday with 650 students — a slight decrease from previous years.
“We didn’t have that much space” to be able to accommodate the level of interest, he said.
For many private school officials around the area, Frank’s tale rings true.
Locally, Hanover County is the only public school system to offer an in-person option, and roughly 60% of the district’s 17,541 students will take advantage when school starts in September. Of the state’s 132 school systems, only 10 are offering fully in-person instruction.
Throughout the summer and especially after the public school announcements came in July, inquiries — and applications — poured in to Richmond-area private schools from parents seeking face-to-face options. That’s because most local private schools had plans to buck the trend of virtual learning and instead welcome students back to campus.
At area private schools, tuition can range from about $6,200 for children in elementary grades on up to $29,000 for students in the high school grades, depending on the school.
Many schools provide grants and financial assistance, as well as tuition discounts for siblings. Some local private schools opened last week; others open this week.
St. Catherine’s School, a private school for girls in Richmond, received 40 applications this summer, which is normally a slow period. St. Catherine’s typically doesn’t even see double digits, school officials said. Meanwhile, its sibling school for boys — St. Christopher’s School — saw a 27% increase in applications over last year.
The eight Catholic schools under the leadership of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond saw “significant” interest and applications over the summer, said Pamela Wray, enrollment management coordinator for the diocese.
“Almost double,” she said.
“Everyone is talking about education right now [and] that’s causing parents to re-evaluate what their options are,” Wray added.
The eight Catholic schools under the diocese — All Saints, Blessed Sacrament Huguenot, Our Lady of Lourdes, Saint Benedict, Saint Bridget, Saint Joseph and St. Mary’s, and St. Edward-Epiphany — make up a little more than 2,500 students in the metro Richmond area and Petersburg.
“We’re grateful they’re taking a look at our schools,” Wray said.
Frank and Wray and others say they’re glad to have children back — but what a summer it’s been for the administrators and teachers who have been working to ensure student safety.
In his 35 years in education, “I have never seen anything close to it,” said Steward’s Frank. In a matter of months, “it feels like we built a new school from the ground up.”
From classrooms to carpools, everything looks wildly different. Campuses have been reimagined; dining halls, auditoriums, conference rooms, libraries, art galleries, the atriums leading to those spaces — even campus chapels — now serve as classroom space and, if needed, walls were built to make sure spaces were separated and students could remain 6 feet apart.
“Learning cottages” have been brought onto campuses, along with large tents.
Frank said Steward’s older orchestra students, for example, will practice on their instruments in the baseball bleachers. Water fountains have been turned off. Morning and afternoon drop-off and pickup schedules have been staggered.
At St. Catherine’s, students are assigned to restrooms to minimize cross-contamination with other students, and during morning carpool drop-off, each child gets their temperature taken before getting out of the car. Restrooms and other high-touch areas are being cleaned every 30 minutes throughout the day.
“We had to re-engineer the campus in order to make it work,” said Theodora Miller, St. Catherine’s director of marketing and communications.
St. Catherine’s Lower School opened last week, while the Upper School opens this week. Together they make up a student body of 960 girls, which is within their normal enrollment range.
“Everyone has worked extremely hard to map out these elaborate plans,” Miller said.
While private schools will welcome back the majority of their students, school officials say they’re offering virtual options as well for small segments of their student population.
For example, Miller said St. Catherine’s offers concurrent learning, which allows students to plug into their classes in real time, and follow along just as if they were in the classroom. The school has also invested in technology so students can have devices they’ll use throughout the year. The idea is that if the school has to go virtual, school officials can immediately pivot to their virtual learning plans and not miss a beat.
Concurrent learning is also an option if a child needs to quarantine at home because they’ve been exposed or tested positive for COVID-19.
“Parents are happy because their kids are in school and we’ve done a lot of training,” Miller said. “But we also have the flexibility ... if [in-person] is just not the right decision.”
Frank said Steward also offers a virtual option called synchronous at-home learning that allows students to learn in real time while at home. He said about 8% of the students will use that option.
Overall, parents are “feeling very grateful, very excited,” Frank said, but also “nervous and asking good questions — being critical in the best sense of that word.”
Dr. Lang Liebman has been watching things unfold from the perspective of a mother and a medical professional.
Her daughter is in second grade at St. Catherine’s, and her son started junior kindergarten at St. Christopher’s. She also serves as Lower School division chair for the parents association at St. Catherine’s.
Given the safety measures in place, “I feel 100% safe — they have done more than you could have hoped for,” Liebman said about the efforts made by school officials, which include offering options for families who choose not to send their children back to school.
“They did not jump to any conclusions,” but rather sought the help of nurses and physicians when making these decisions, said Liebman who added that she appreciates that dedication to keeping the children safe — even if it means parents and visitors are not allowed on campus without a very good reason.
If a student forgets their lunch or their homework, “you cannot bring it,” Liebman said. “I respect that.”
So far, her children have adapted to their new normal.
“The kids have just rolled with it,” Liebman said. In fact, after the first day, she said she was tickled when her daughter mentioned in passing: “I forgot I was wearing my mask.”
Wray said the Catholic school community is proud of the work done by administrators and teachers and everyone involved to get the school year off to a good start and to offer as much flexibility as possible to accommodate the learning needs of all its students.
“We recognize that one size doesn’t fit all,” she said. “It has been an enormous undertaking ... in a very short period.”
The students were a welcome sight last week, she said.
“When we see all these children back, there’s so much energy and excitement,” Wray said. “Even behind the masks, we can see the biggest smiles.”
Staff writer Sean Gorman contributed to this report.