So she is taking a gamble for the fall: She is pulling her son out of their beloved public elementary school and putting him in a private school that, for now, says its campus buildings will be open full time for in-person learning in September.
Kindt says she realizes that she’s making a bet and that she may end up in the same situation as she was at the public school: All virtual learning from home.
But she said she expects that private schools will eventually be able to switch to in-person learning quicker than public schools, making it a worthwhile gamble for her.
“If they do close I am back to square one,” Kindt said. “It again means I will not be able to go back to work.”
While most of the region’s public school districts say their campuses will remain closed for the start of the fall semester, many private schools — which can charge more than $45,000 a year in tuition and fees — are still planning to bring students into classrooms for at least part of the week. It’s a situation that could exacerbate existing inequalities, with wealthier students attending classes in person at private schools, and everyone else using public schools’ distance learning, which left many students behind in their academics.
The fact that these private schools may offer some in-class instruction has fueled an uptick in enrollment inquiries from families who can afford to make the switch.
“As of July 22, pretty much across the board, schools are planning for some sort of in-person learning in the fall,” said Amy McNamer, executive director of the Association of Independent Schools of Greater Washington, which supports 76 private schools in the region. “And I have to add this big caveat that that could change,” she said.
In online forums, parents are asking one another for advice about private schools, saying they fear that virtual learning at their public schools will be a disaster.
We are “looking at private options,” one Fairfax County Public Schools parent wrote on the online forum DC Urban Moms, seeking a private school with a strong virtual-learning program. “We had been considering it even before the pandemic but now it’s clear.”
McNamer said private schools are better equipped for in-person learning. Their campuses are typically bigger and class sizes were already smaller — sometimes just 12 students in a class — before the pandemic, allowing students to better keep their distance during the school day.
“Our schools are able to make decisions for one institution and one community only and that allows them to change course quickly,” McNamer said.
It’s unclear, however, how most teachers feel about returning. Unlike public schools — whose unions have pushed for schools to reopen virtually — the teachers at these private campuses are not unionized. Hundreds of private school teachers from across the country, including in the Washington region, have circulated online and anonymously signed a statement calling on schools to reopen virtually. Private school teachers and staff said in interviews that they think their schools are reopening because administrators do not want to lose tuition-paying parents who might withdraw from the school, and they fear they will have no protections if they are not ready to return.
We “believe that it is our duty to share publicly that placing our students into classrooms this fall is an unsafe, pedagogically unsound, and ultimately unethical course of action,” the statement reads.
President Trump’s son Barron, 14, attends St. Andrew’s Episcopal — a private school with a sprawling campus in Maryland that serves 645 students from preschool to high school. Trump said during a briefing that he was comfortable with his son going back into the classroom. St. Andrew’s has told families in a letter posted on its website to expect either all distance learning in the fall or a hybrid model, where elementary school students could attend in-person classes every day and older students would switch between distance and in-person learning.
In Northwest Washington, the Sheridan School says it plans to bring its 226 elementary and middle school students back to classrooms five days a week. In Baltimore, the all-boys Gilman School says elementary school students can come to campus every day, while high schoolers can return three days a week.
The Archdiocese of Washington said in a letter to families it has set guidelines for the region’s Catholic schools for reopening, and schools are now working on their individual fall plans.
In the Washington region, many parochial schools have said they will open their doors.
Clyde Davis Jr. sends his son, a rising seventh-grader, to Holy Trinity: An Episcopal School in Prince George’s County. Davis was laid off from his job in the beverage industry and said he has been able to supervise his son during distance learning. He said his son is an independent student and has not fallen behind in academics.
Davis, a D.C. resident, said the school plans to offer at least some in-person learning during the fall, but he plans to keep his son at home. He may allow his son to return for the first days to reunite with friends, but with coronavirus case numbers rising, he is not ready to send the boy back to the school building just yet, fearing for the safety of students and teachers.
“There was a part of me that thought if they go virtual, I might as well send him to public school,” Davis said. But he is sticking with the private school.
The current situation for many of the region’s elite private schools is a far cry from the doomsday scenario that some anticipated at the beginning of the pandemic. Sidwell Friends received a $5.2 million Paycheck Protection Program loan and told The Washington Post in May that it anticipated declining enrollment for the 2020-2021 academic year and other revenue streams to dry up. In a recent email, a Sidwell spokesman wrote that “we are grateful that interest and enrollment remain steady.” Sidwell has not yet announced plans for the fall.
Owen Daly, director of secondary school admissions at Gilman, said the school has received more inquiries about enrollment since the surrounding Maryland public school districts have announced an all-virtual start to the academic year.
“For Gilman, and a lot of the schools, the challenge is that our school is fully enrolled so it’s not like we can accept a lot of these families even though we would like to help them,” Daly said.
Because of donations from alumni, the school is able to hire more teaching assistants and staff, allowing students to remain in small, socially distanced cohorts on campus and maximizing in-person class time, Daly said. Parents may select an all-virtual option and the school is still figuring out which staff members would be willing to return to in-person classes.
“It’s a lot of money to invest in elementary school education and we want to make sure that we are providing the best education possible — safely,” Daly said.
At the beginning of the pandemic, some schools feared a departure of cash-strapped families, but that hasn’t happened.
“I would say with confidence we are not seeing any change in attrition due to financial needs,” said Connie Mitchell, director of marketing and communications at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart, an all-girls school in Bethesda. “There’s been a marked uptick in interest — it’s noticeable, is the best way to describe it.”
Danny Rosenthal initially moved to his Montgomery County neighborhood from the District for the well-regarded public schools. He said his two older children, rising fifth- and third-graders, have thrived at their neighborhood public school. But when schools closed down in March, he heard from his friends who send their children to private schools that their remote-learning offerings were much more rigorous and robust than his public school’s.
Montgomery County Public Schools plan to go all virtual, and Rosenthal is considering enrolling his children in a nearby Jewish day school that plans to meet in-person — if they can get a slot.
“We are trying to solve multiple equations simultaneously with a lot of unknown variables and trying to do it with three children,” he said. “If you are dumping money into tuition, it should be perfect.”