Private schools welcoming students back to campus

Students returned to their classrooms at Milford Christian School this week, as private schools across the state gear up for the academic year amid coronavirus. Downstate, many are looking to bring their students back to their buildings.

“It’s going very well. It’s just very awkward because we’re not doing things as we’ve been accustomed to doing them,” Pastor David Perdue said Wednesday, the first day back for Milford Christian. “Everybody’s a bit tentative. But other than that, it’s going very well. We’ve been very pleased.”

The private school, which has approximately 125 students, is among those that are opening their doors this fall as coronavirus has been making its way through Delaware since March.

Unlike the public and charter schools, private schools are carved into a different educational facet in Delaware. Despite that, the schools are utilizing the same 34-page reopening guidance for K-12 released by the Delaware Department of Education, said Jen Brestel, a spokesperson for the Division of Public Health.

The guidelines, released in mid-July, address things like transportation, social distancing, mask-wearing, cleaning and more.

“The Division of Public Health has coordinated with private and parochial schools and is available to support and provide guidance to those school leaders as needed,” she said in an email. “Because they may have different capacity, size and space, some of them are able to open with students present and still maintain safety and health strategies. Private schools also have plans in place to pivot to all distance learning or by cohort if the need arises.”

Earlier this month, Gov. John Carney announced that public schools could open their doors with a mix of in-person and remote instruction. As school boards met across the state through this month, many opted for a slow phase-in of in-person classes, with most beginning the year virtually.

Milford Christian School’s leadership was awaiting Gov. Carney’s decision Aug. 4 — much like the state’s public schools were.

“We’re not a public school, so we can do basically what we feel we should do, but we wanted to follow all the guidelines,” Pastor Perdue said.

He said they read up on everything the state released. When students in grades preschool through 12 arrived at school Wednesday, desks were spaced out — a challenge for the school, which only has one building. Some furniture was removed to increase space.

“We can’t put nearly as many students in the school rooms as we could. In fact, all of our classes are full except three or four,” he said.

They have even had to turn some students away, because they simply cannot fit everyone, he added.

“There’s a great deal of excitement about students getting to go back to school. It used to be kids didn’t want to go back to school,” he said. “But I think after the experience they had last spring, a lot of students are eager — obviously not just for the educational opportunities, but for the social opportunities.”

Greenwood Mennonite opening Tuesday
Greenwood Mennonite School plans to welcome back all its students Tuesday.

“Our rooms are large, and our classes are small, and we are able to do socially distanced classrooms,” said Duane Miller, principal for the school. “(We) plan to be in person with all of our students.”

The school, which has a little more than 200 students in grades kindergarten through 12, is working with staff and students on a case-by-case basis for potential remote learning, he said.

As they geared up for the year ahead, he said the school was in the process of cleaning and restructuring to make sure distancing could be met.

“Probably the biggest challenges are finding how to best work with the different guidelines and meet all those standards and be as normal as we can,” Mr. Miller said.

St. Anne’s hopes to fully reopen
In Middletown, St. Anne’s Episcopal School has set its sights on a full reopening.

“We’re relatively small. We only have around 200 to 225 students for grades preschool through eight,” said Matt Goetting, associate head of school for advancement. “We have a large campus — a 100-acre campus. I’d say pre-COVID, we spent a lot of time outside with our students and, given what we know about the transmission of the virus and being outside, we plan on having as much outside time with our students as possible.”

The small private school is slated to open Sept. 2. In its reopening documents, the school notes that its students will have a main cohort with one or two assigned teachers. Children will be expected to bring their own lunch as the meal programs will be suspended. Primary- and lower-school students will have their own learning supplies to reduce shared items.

For extended outdoor learning, the school is amending the dress code to allow jeans, cargo pants and jean shorts.

The school will also be offering a virtual option for families who may not feel comfortable or be able to send their children back to in-person instruction, he said.

“There is no precedent, certainly, that we can look to — there are some examples from other countries and whatnot, but I think we’re all in this together and trying to do the very best we can and to follow along with news that, literally, seems to be coming out daily about the virus and how the virus is transmitted and what you can do to keep your community safe,” he said.

Faculty and staff will all be tested before school starts, he said.

“We’re working closely with DPH, and they have made testing available to all faculty and staff,” he said. “We’re encouraging our families to get their children tested.”

Boarding school bringing back 320 students
At nearby St. Andrew’s, the private boarding school is looking to welcome its approximately 320 high school students back to its 2,200-acre campus.

The school has spent its summer preparing: They’ve ordered partitions for dorm room sinks, tents for outdoor teaching, hand-washing stations, additional beds and mattresses, information technology equipment and cameras for virtual teaching and to record classes, said Ann Visalli, chief operating officer for the school.

“We’re prepared for both situations,” she said. “One is for enhancing our virtual capabilities, and then, the other is to be prepared for students to come back, and that includes testing protocol and working with all of our faculty and staff on their health and safety.”

Classes formally start in mid-September. Students are to quarantine for 14 days prior to arrival. Arrival times will be staggered, meaning that some will be learning virtually while others are already on campus, Ms. Visalli said.

Once students arrive, they will live on campus without roommates, in quarantine-like conditions, until their test results have returned. As the school fills with more students arriving, roommates will quarantine together while waiting for test results.

The school arranged for all families to receive prepaid home testing kits so students are able to test prior to their arrival on campus — a similar model that will be used for public school educators. Students will also be tested upon arrival to St. Andrew’s, and there will be ongoing testing.

Staff is also asked to quarantine for 14 days and will be tested in advance of teaching.

Faculty, staff and students will be required to wear masks while indoors and in shared areas, practice 6-foot social distancing and wash hands regularly. The school will create “family units” within each dorm. Family units will have dorm meetings and eat together.

She added that the school has encouraged a “virtual workplace.”

“We have the ability to be very flexible, and so we are making accommodations for any employee, faculty or staff, whether they’re medically at risk or have other concerns,” she said.

Ms. Visalli said that St. Andrew’s doesn’t quite fit into the model of a public high school or a college or university.

With public schools, they have the wrinkle of busing students to and from school. With universities, many of their students live off campus or can easily go to bars and restaurants off campus.

“For the most part, students are here, their meals are here, their classes are here, they live here,” she said. “It’s really a different situation in that sense.”

Looking ahead to the year, St. Andrew’s is prepared for virtual learning with its international student population and while others wait for their arrival time on campus.

“Ultimately, we really want to have all of our students here on campus and all in-person learning,” she continued. “We are also fully prepared if health and safety becomes an issue to revert to a virtual semester.”