As the Christina School District plans for online learning through at least mid-October, several local private schools are finding creative ways to bring at least some students back into classrooms.
The Independence School, a private school on Paper Mill Road, will bring students back to campus in small cohorts — “mini-schools” — designed to limit contact between classes. While students can opt for remote instruction, Director of Marketing and Communications Claire Brechter said a large majority would be returning for in-person classes.
“We’ve all wanted to be back,” Brechter said. “Given the size of our campus, our ability to be outdoors with our students and the space we have in our physical facility to adhere to distancing and other guidelines, we feel confident that we’re doing everything we can to keep everybody as safe as we can.”
Students will be required to wear face masks, many classes will move outdoors, and parents are encouraged to get their children tested regularly. Brechter said that while some parents have expressed concerns about their children wearing masks throughout the day, there were no issues during a socially-distanced movie night welcoming families back to campus earlier this month.
“There was so much joy in having our children back on our campus,” she said. “I watched all these little kids wearing their masks, and they did a beautiful job. Children are adaptable.They will see everybody else around them wearing them, and we are optimistic that they’ll be fine.”
Newark Center for Creative Learning, a private school on Phillips Avenue, will be bringing students back in small groups with the option for students to stay fully remote. According to Administrative Director Lauren Evans, NCCL has seen increased interest in enrollment from families coming from public schools, but she said that accommodating current students remains a priority.
Policy decisions at NCCL are made by consensus among staff, so teachers have been heavily involved in planning for reopening. Like students, they will have the option to teach remotely, although most classes have two instructors, so in-person students will have at least one teacher. Most teachers, Evans added, are choosing to remain in school.
“We were including our staff in this community decision, if they would rather be in person or at home,” Evans said. “We need to be very mindful of everyone’s perspective and make sure that everyone understands that we value them in our community.”
Many classes will meet outside in tents, and Evans said teachers are embracing new types of learning. For example, seventh and eighth-grade social studies students will take walking tours of Newark facilitated by the Newark Historical Society.
“Our staff are looking at how they can use outdoor learning as a springboard for different types of education,” Evans said. “I’m really proud of our teachers for taking this on as an opportunity as opposed to just a challenge.”
The University of Delaware Lab School, an early learning school run through the university's Department of Human Development and Family Sciences, will also build on outdoor experiences to keep students safe as they return to campus.
After four years, the Lab School's Nature Preschool program will extend their outdoor experiences with reduced class sizes. According to Nature and Outdoor Preschool Master Teacher Katie Pollock, the Lab School will also invite UD student teachers to help craft the classroom experience.
"We are thrilled for them to be able to see firsthand how to start a year, how to establish a community of learners, how to create a warm and inviting environment both in and outdoors," Pollock wrote in an email to The Post.
Holy Angels School, a private Catholic school on Possum Park Road, is taking a hybrid approach. Students will return to campus for orientation before being split into two groups, which will trade off weekly for in-person instruction. Students will have the option to stay remote, but out of an enrollment of 360, fewer than 20 are taking that route.
Principal Mary Muir commended her teachers for training in virtual instruction while preparing for students to return to the classroom.
“Our teachers have knocked it out of the ballpark,” Muir said. “One period, they are teaching a class of children in front of them, and the next period, they are going to be teaching a class online. And so being able to really make that shift, that’s not an easy thing for a teacher to do.”
Muir said teachers and families will need to be flexible as the pandemic evolves, but emphasized that everyone wants to do what they think is best for their children. Masks and social distancing are required in school, attendance policies will be flexible, and Muir encouraged parents to screen children for fever and other symptoms as part of a morning routine.
“The beauty of being a faith-based school is the real deep sense of community,” she said. “All these things that we do, it’s not just for ourselves, but it’s also because it helps to keep everyone safe.”
Other schools will not be bringing students back to campus, at least at first.
Newark Charter School will begin the year with four weeks of online classes. Students will tune into live instruction four days a week, with Wednesday reserved for independent work and extra help for students who need it. All students in grades four through 12 will be provided with a Chromebook laptop.
School officials will re-evaluate the situation at the end of September and decide how to proceed, School Director Frank Newton said. Among the factors in their decision will be how much community spread of the virus there is and what the latest research shows about the role of children in the spread of the virus.
Ensuring students wear face masks will be “a huge part” of any attempt to bring students back into the classroom part-time, and transportation remains a challenge due to the need to limit capacity on school buses, Newton added.
“We would all like to have every kid back in school, but we have to know we’re doing it safely,” he said.
Las Americas ASPIRA Academy, a charter school on Ruthar Drive, also plans to start the year with four weeks of virtual instruction. CEO Margie Lopez-Waite hopes the school will be able to adopt a hybrid model at the end of September, but said it may remain entirely online through winter break.
“It’s like being in a tug of war, with that little towel that marks the middle of the rope going back and forth,” Lopez-Waite said. “We know that we can’t please everybody.”
Under a hybrid model, students would be split into two groups with two days of in-person instruction each week. Lopez-Waite said about 35 percent of families chose to remain fully online for at least the first trimester, but others hope to resume in-person instruction earlier. Across the board, though, parents are concerned about the safety of their children.
In addition to requiring masks and stocking the school with personal protective equipment like thermometers, gloves and disinfectant, facilities staff created dividers to use in offices, classrooms and the cafeteria. Lopez-Waite also hopes to use additional space in ASPIRA Academy’s newly-opened high school building on Otts Chapel Road.
She said that despite balancing plans for hybrid and all-remote instruction, teachers and staff are prepared to support students’ academic, social and emotional needs.
“Last spring, we had to go remote with no advance warning, no advance preparation, and I was very impressed with how our team made it happen,” Lopez-Waite said. “Teachers really tried to not only continue with learning, but they went all out in trying to keep that personal connection with their students.”
Ultimately, she said, the decision to bring students back in a hybrid model will depend on state and local indicators of community health. She added that since 80 percent of ASPIRA Academy students are Black or Hispanic, a population hit disproportionately hard by the virus, they have to dig deeper into case data before making a final decision.
For ASPIRA, safety concerns guided every decision about reopening, and discussions with parents at a series of listening sessions shaped the school’s policy decisions, Lopez-Waite said. While she acknowledged a wide range of opinions on the best reopening strategy, she emphasized that keeping the community safe means everyone must work together.
“We’ve been very candid at those listening sessions,” she said. “If you don’t believe that COVID is real, and therefore you’re refusing to wear a face mask, then your child is not going to participate face-to-face. Your political beliefs are not going to get in the way of the safety of our school.”