As most public schools have opted for remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some private schools have the luxury of offering in-person learning.
The main reason for that is their typical small-class sizes that can reduce the risk and better control the potential spread of the coronavirus.
On Bainbridge Island, both the Montessori Country School and Carden Country School have already begun their in-person instruction and the heads of schools say things have gone fairly well.
“Things went more smoothly than I was worried about, to be honest,” said Meghan Kane Skotheim, the head of Montessori school. “We staggered arrival and dismissal. We screen for symptoms, and we also take temperatures of every child and that actually went smoothly.
“Our kids are used to wearing masks, they seem to have done that through most of the summer. For the older children, telling them to stay six-feet apart is something that they understand.”
Christopher Harvey, headmaster and teacher at Carden, said: “They’re thrilled to be back in school,” “We are keeping our classrooms completely separated for the first several weeks of school. Being a small community, we need to rely on each other to stay healthy.”
Montessori serves 88 students offering preschool through sixth-grade. The school is split into four programs: Parent-Infant, Toddler, Primary and Elementary. Fourteen staff members, including 11 teachers, work at MSC.
Carden is even smaller, consisting of 28 students. Typically, the school offers grades K-8, but in order to create more space in the building they are only offering K-6 this year. However, Harvey said the school didn’t have to make any staff cuts.
Both heads of schools said that they saw an uptick in interest this year from parents who felt their children needed to receive in-person learning. But they had to turn many down because of the limited capacities each school has due to COVID.
“I think size has a huge amount to do with it,” Skotheim said about her school being able to conduct in-person learning safely. “We just generally have fewer layers of services that we offer so we’re a little bit more nimble.
“I have the greatest respect for all that a public school offers to the community. We don’t offer all of those services. That also gives us a little more flexibility.”
Harvey agreed: “Certainly, our size makes it easier for us to do things like maintain distance. With only eight kids in the class, if somebody isn’t wearing their mask or is getting into somebody else’s face, it’s a lot easier to tell.
“We work really hard on building community and a community that knows each other and cares for each other.”
According to MCS’s website, school health regulations include:
• Wearing of masks by all employees, students and volunteers while inside buildings
• Seating students with 6-foot social distancing as “much as possible” and facing in the same direction
• Utilizing outdoor classroom settings as weather allows
• Temperature and symptom checks upon arrival
• Isolation unit for attendees showing symptoms
• Hygiene measures of washing or sanitizing hands upon arrival, before and after eating
• Diligent cleaning, disinfecting and sanitizing protocols for school facilities and vehicles
• Reduced mingling of students and congestion during lunch, passing periods and recess, and new rules on food service
• Reduced capacity on buses and transportation
• Changes to congested areas within buildings to discourage crowds
“Our staff we’ve met with constantly over the summer and put all these protocols in place,” Skotheim said. “I think that seeing the kids come and seeing that it actually works has been very reassuring to them. Our goal is to keep kids able to come to school so we’re going to follow these protocols very tightly to make sure we can all keep coming.”
At CCS, Harvey said COVID-19 guidelines start with health screenings upon arrival in the parking lot. Each student will get a temperature check and have to answer a few Department of Health and CDC questions before getting out their car to enter school. Other things like mandatory mask-wearing, social distancing and frequent disinfecting of commonly used areas are also in place.
“We’ve been Zooming with county health officials throughout the summer,” Harvey said. “If your child is sick, keep them home. Mostly, we are relying on parents to understand the seriousness and to buy in. We’re balancing the need to keep them safe with the need to let them still be children.”
Both Skotheim and Harvey said they are prepared for the potential of a student or staff member testing positive for COVID, in which case both schools would shut down for 14 days and move to remote learning.
“That is something that we have been told by the health department to expect – that someone in our community will test positive,” Skotheim said. “We are ready to do that.
“We’ve also asked our families to sign a family commitment that they will continue to follow the guidelines outside of school just as a way to, hopefully, make that not happen.”
Even with complex health and safety guidelines in place, Skotheim said her students and staff couldn’t be happier to see each other and engage in face-to-face learning once again. She even said one of her teachers started crying after hearing one of her students laugh because it had been nearly six months since she heard something like that.
“For us to be able to teach and use our materials is something that we’re all very dedicated to and feel strongly about,” Skotheim said. “We’re all kind of putting in extra hours and doing a lot of extra jobs in order to make this happen.”