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Education

Delaware's private schools also grapple with reopening plans

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Delaware Public Media
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Questions about how schools will resume teaching kids here in the First State are not limited to the state’s public schools and charters. Private schools also have decisions to make, and like their public school counterparts, there seem to be almost as many plans as there are schools.

Delaware Public Media contributor Larry Nagengast looks at how private school plans are coming together. 

With less than two weeks before the first bells ring at some of Delaware’s private schools, students and their families are finding out more about what learning will look like, but a much larger question looms in the distance: for how long will the new instructional protocols last?

By now, many private schools have posted reopening information on their websites, but some have yet to decide which procedures they will follow as the state continues its battle to flatten the COVID-19 pandemic curve. Some schools will be all open and others will start with an in-between hybrid model. None of the schools contacted for this article are planning an all-remote opening – an option already selected for some public schools – but they are preparing for a transition to full distance learning if conditions dictate such a change.

“It is inevitable that there will be students in schools who have been exposed to it,” says the Rev. Chris Beretta, principal of Salesianum, the Catholic high school for boys in Wilmington, which plans a hybrid reopening on August 26.

"At some point, I expect that we will need to go remote. When I don't know." - Ken Aldridge Wilmington Friends School head of school

What happens then, school leaders say, will depend on the details.

“At some point, I expect that we will need to go remote. When I don’t know,” says Ken Aldridge, head of Wilmington Friends School, which is also starting with a hybrid format on September 8.

Every case won’t be the same,” says Louis De Angelo, superintendent of 19 schools that enroll about 7,500 students in the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington. “We may need to quarantine a classroom – or the whole school,” he says.

While the extent of any shutdown will depend on the circumstances, there will be some consistency in how the decisions are made since all schools, public and private, have been assigned a liaison at the state Division of Public Health to provide guidance when students or staff members are tested positive for the virus.

Building their plans

Much as the state Department of Education created a master planning reopening template for public schools and left the 19 districts and 20 charter schools to fill in the details for themselves, private schools are operating in similar fashion, adapting the public school guidelines to fit their situations.

No two schools in the Catholic diocese will be alike, De Angelo says, and that observation appears to apply just as well to the entire Delaware private education universe.

The diocese has given its schools some broad guidelines. All schools will provide in-person instruction for pre-kindergarten through first grade, and schools that enroll fewer than 250 students have the option of offering an in-person or hybrid model for all students. Schools with more than 250 students must employ some form of hybrid instruction.

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Credit Tower Hill School
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Tower Hill School
Tower Hill is having masks made for its students to wear.

Some private schools, especially those with lower enrollments and larger campuses, are planning to start with in-person instruction for all students while giving families the option of choosing remote learning if their children have health issues or would feel more comfortable learning at home. Tower Hill, Sanford, Independence, Hockessin Montessori, and Wilmington Christian are among the schools taking this approach. Officials at Tower Hill and Wilmington Christian estimated that about 5 percent of their students are opting for remote learning.

Ursuline Academy is planning in-person instruction only for its lower school, which spans from a Montessori preschool through fifth grade. For the middle and high school programs, the goal is to bring as many students as possible into the building, with remote options available to families that desire it. Ursuline is asking those who prefer remote learning to commit to this option through mid-October, when individual situations and the school’s overall status will be reevaluated.

Archmere Academy,a coeducational high school in Claymont, is also planning a full reopening with remote learning options. Class sizes have been reduced; no more than 10 students will be in a room at one time A revised schedule creates longer class periods but half of each period will be devoted to viewing an asynchronous lesson in another space on campus. These classes will be held four days a week. The fifth day has been set aside for labs and other asynchronous learning.

Other schools are choosing to reopen with a hybrid model, but with a variety of systems being used to determine which students will be learning at home or online. 

Salesianum will split its students by last name – those beginning with letters A through L will attend classes on Monday and Thursday and those with letters M through Z reporting on Tuesday and Friday. On the days students are home, they will log onto classes online. (Wednesday will be set aside for tutoring, counseling and other activities that can be conducted remotely.)

Wilmington Friends will split its students by grade level. Lower school students will attend classes five days a week (with Wednesday afternoons off for cleaning). Middle school students will be in the building on Mondays and Tuesdays and upper school students on Thursdays and Fridays.

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Credit Delaware Public Media
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The Catholic Diocese of Wilmington is allowing individual schools like St. Mary Magdalen set up their own individual reopening plans.

At St. Mary Magdalen School in Brandywine Hundred, students will be split into two groups, with in-school and remote learning alternating by weeks rather than days.

Tatnall School plans to start with a hybrid approach and quickly transition to in-person learning for its middle and upper school students.

Early childhood and lower school students at Tatnall will start in-person instruction on September 9. On September 9-10, the middle school will have in-person classes while the upper school will receive remote instruction. The groups will shift modes, two days at a time, through September 18. The following Monday, the goal is to have all students back in the building.

The reason for the brief hybrid opening, Head of School Andrew Martire wrote in a letter to parents, is “to make sure that what looks good ‘on paper’ is faithfully executed in actuality.” The hybrid launch, he added, also gives the school the opportunity to test its virtual learning process in case the school has to transition to a remote scenario later in the school year.

Students at Caravel Academy in Bear have until August 18 to choose either in-person or remote learning. For middle and high school students, the remote option will enable them to log into their regular classes in real time. For the lower grades and the preschool, remote instruction will be provided by designated teachers, minus the connection to regular classrooms that will be used at upper levels.

Some schools are also tweaking their class offerings.

Independence, a K-8 school near Newark, has divided its students into three mini-schools – early learning, elementary and middle – to reduce cross-contact among students and staff. Each mini-school will have its own tent outdoors, to be used for lunch and some classroom instruction. Specialty teachers, like those for art and music, will work with one mini-school group for several months at a time rather than working with all three.

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Credit Delaware Public Media
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Salesianum is cutting back on the number of subjects students are taking to make managing remote learning easier,

Salesianum has simplified its scheduling – offering students four subjects per semester instead of the traditional seven. The change, Beretta says, would simplify instruction in a remote learning environment while enabling students to explore subjects more intensively during a shorter timeframe.

Many schools have also adjusted their learning spaces, turning larger areas like conference rooms, gyms and cafeterias into classrooms.  

Independence School has removed bookcases and other accessories from some classrooms to space desks at least six feet apart, says Claire Brechler, the school’s director of marketing and communications. The school also plans to split some classes into two groups, enabling the teacher to provide instruction to one half of a class while an aide watches the other half work on assignments.

Learning from experience

As schools develop their hybrid models and prepare for the possibility that they might have to pivot to full remote learning, their leaders and teachers have tried to build on what they learned from mid-March through June, when the state of emergency required the closure of all school buildings and forced many teachers to adopt new instructional methods with little time to prepare.

"We made a mistake in the spring, thinking you could keep kids engaged online for six hours a day. It just isn't possible." - Catholic Diocese of Wilmington superintendent Louis De Angelo.

One important lesson from the spring, Wilmington Friends’ Aldridge says, was the need to give students and parents clear expectations for executing both synchronous (real time) and asynchronous (recorded) instruction.

“We made a mistake in the spring, thinking you could keep kids engaged online for six hours a day. It just isn’t possible. You need to diversify activities,” De Angelo says.

“It was a challenge [in the spring] to measure how much screen time was too much, and we also had to be supportive and understanding of parents who were working” and had arrange for sharing time on their computers, Brechler says.

The transition to remote learning in March made leaders at both private and public schools aware that some students did not have access to a personal computer or a portable device, and that others had limited access to the internet. Many schools surveyed students and families during the spring and summer to determine student needs.

St. Peter’s Cathedral School, which serves a largely low-income population in Wilmington, found that distributing printed worksheets to students in its lower grades did not work well in the spring, De Angelo says, so it used a combination of grants and donations to raise enough money to purchase Chromebook laptops for its youngest students.

Some schools have ramped up their remote instruction capabilities by equipping their classrooms with high-definition video cameras and high-quality microphones.

Schools have also used the summer to give their teachers better preparation for remote learning. Independence School gave its teachers a week of training on distance and online learning topics, and Catholic school teachers will have a week of similar professional development before school starts.

Teachers at Tower Hill received a list of about 30 classes and webinars that they could take during the summer to expand their knowledge and improve their skills, according to Teresa Messmore, the school’s director of communications and marketing.

As the first bells of the new school year approach, school officials are expressing a blend of wariness and confidence.

“Just like in March, there will be challenges that no one could have ever predicted,” says Roger Erdvig, head of Wilmington Christian School. “But we’re ahead of where we were in March, and we will be prepared.”

What families can expect if their kids go to school in-person

It should come as no surprise that students from fourth grade through high school will be required to wear masks, which are also recommended for children in lower grades.

One notable exception is at Wilmington Christian School, which officials there say is spacious enough that students will sometimes have sufficient social distance to make masks optional. Headed in the other direction is Tower Hill School, which is requiring all its students to wear the same style of mask: a gray covering bearing the school’s TH logo.

In addition to requiring mask wearing, private schools are establishing protocols that conform with the guidelines the state Department of Education has established for public schools. The fine points of each item may vary slightly from school to school, but here are some procedures families should expect:

  • Daily temperature checks at home.
  • Complete a questionnaire on COVID-19 symptoms before entering the building.
  • Frequent hand washing and use of hand sanitizer.
  • Serving boxed lunches, and prepared or packaged food; alternatively, bring lunches from home.
  • Water coolers may be disconnected; bring bottled water from home.
  • Cafeteria seating may be limited; students may be eating lunch in their classrooms.
  • Regimented procedures for dropping off and picking up students before and after school.
  • Fewer students in classrooms, physical distancing in hallways, limits on the number of people using bathrooms at one time.
  • Access to school by parents and other adults will be limited.
  • Locker use will be limited or eliminated.
  • Before-school and after-care programs may be reduced or eliminated.
  • Field trips will not be offered until current state restrictions are loosened.
  • Large events like meet-the-teacher nights, homecoming and performances will not be held.

For specifics on health and wellness protocols, and for details of instructional plans, check the website of each school.

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