With Loudoun County Public Schools opening the school year with almost all students signed up for distance learning, many of the county’s private and parochial schools are courting students and parents eager for an in-person learning experience.
Loudoun School for Advanced Studies is one of those schools. The Ashburn school, which moved into a larger facility last school year, is preparing to reopen its doors to its student population, which Head of School Sylvia Israel expects to hover around 65 or 70 this fall.
Administrators say the small school population is ideally suited to comply with CDC and Health Department guidance to deal with the impacts and social distancing requirements of the COVID-19 pandemic. Already, class sizes at the sixth through 12th grade school average only six to eight students, with a maximum of 10.
“The biggest difference for us is we have a discussion-based experience. [Classes are] a very small group, like a graduate school study group. When you think about a public school classroom where you have roughly 30 kids, it’s just a fundamentally different conversation. We were already lower density, which makes it easier in some ways for us to transition to physical distancing requirements,” said founder Deep Sran.
Interest has been high among prospective students and parents this summer, Israel said, with many longing for the in-school experience and the perk of small class sizes. A major difference this summer has been the interest the school has been getting from rising seniors.
“This is the first year we’ve ever been approached by a number of rising seniors who are absolutely overwhelmed by their last year being such a mess,” she said. “They’re all really strong students, taking hard classes, they don’t want to take [classes] virtually. They want help and guidance through the college [application] process.”
Dylan Feathers, Upper School principal at Virginia Academy, also in Ashburn, said the large space afforded by being a ministry of the 110,000-square-foot Community Church is a distinct advantage for the coming school year. It will allow plenty of options to socially distance the student population, which Feathers said could climb as high as 520 because of the high interest in enrollment over the summer. The school accommodates students from preschool through 12th grade.
The school staff is already brainstorming creative ways to distance students, and also provide outdoor opportunities to break up the monotony of being in the same space all day, Feathers said. This year, as a change, upper school students will also have recess during the day, and the staff is also exploring setting up outdoor learning environments as the weather allows.
Schools are often hotspots for spreading infection, which lead Loudoun County’s public school system to back off administrators’ earlier plans for some in-person learning and opt for distance learning in all but a few cases.
The biggest difficulty in some cases, said Loudoun County Health Department Director Dr. David Goodfriend, is changing behaviors—especially among younger students and their teachers.
“Typically with small kids, they’re sharing clothes, they’re running around in recess together, they’re hugging their teachers and each other, and those are the things that are spreading infections,” Goodfriend said. That has made elementary schools in particular centers for the spread of the flu, another respiratory virus, each year.
“What you don’t want is to have disease spread in the schools, so keep your physical distancing, symptom screening, mask use when you can,” Goodfriend advised. “Look at those places where people pass by each other, high touch areas and how we sanitize those.” They are the same recommendations public health professionals have made for everyone, he pointed out.
“It’s just that much more disruptive if you have a case in the school and it turns out you did not have physical distancing, so you have a whole class, or a whole bus, or multiple classes that have to then be sent home for 14 days,” Goodfriend said.
But private schools, he said, may have a much easier time controlling the spread of infection in their buildings.
“Private schools are much more variable in terms of their size, their facility layouts, and the ages that they deal with,” Goodfriend said. That means that, compared with public schools, private schools often have setups that make it easier for them to stop the spread of diseases among the students: “It may be that they’re set up to do 100 percent [in-person], physical distancing during the day. It could be terrific, and if that’s the case, then go ahead with it.”
Even so, private school is a solution only for those who can afford it. While the private schools offer varying levels of tuition assistance or scholarships, up to and including a full ride in some cases, enrolling a student in private school can cost tens of thousands of dollars. At the Virginia Academy, tuition for students in sixth through 12th grade is $12,500, according to the school’s website. Tuition for a high schooler at the Loudoun School for Advanced Studies is $31,000.
And at many schools, students and teachers will have to be comfortable with a religious bend to their schooling.
Virginia Academy does not require its students to be Christians, but uses its religious philosophy to guide its interactions with students.
“We see ourselves as a ministry,” Feathers said. “We have genuine leaders on staff who are passionate about the Lord and kids and education. Our secret sauce is that we build relationships with our kids. They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
Another private school, Dominion Christian School, also teaches its curriculum from a Christian view “that all truth belongs to God,” said Anna Wishard, principal of the school’s Potomac Falls campus. The school this year will have classes in kindergarten through third grade, and plans to add an additional grade each school year since opening its Potomac Falls campus last year. The school has been in existence for 25 years, with campuses also in Oakton and Reston. Word of mouth has been the school’s strongest form of marketing, with Wishard reporting lots of outreach from prospective families since the School Board announced its decision.
Wishard expects to have at least 30 students attending the Potomac Falls campus this fall, up from 12 last year. The school teaches its curriculum from a classical pedagogy, which has seen a resurgence in U.S. schools in the last 30 to 45 years, she said.
“Some of the highlights are the idea of living history; we study history in the order it occurred. We do special events that involve dressing up in the classroom and feasting. We focus a lot on the development of virtue and affections. The truth is all education is formative. We pay a lot of attention to forming affections towards things we think are beautiful. We wouldn’t separate out the sacred from the secular, per se, but we would say God is giving us the world to explore so we do that fully,” Wishard said.
Nearby, Our Lady of Hope Catholic School in Potomac Falls also will offer families the choice for 100 percent in-person learning, with the option to attend classes virtually, as well. Thus far, about 90 percent of the school’s families have indicated their students will attend classes in person, said Principal Mary Beth Pittman.
“We’ve had overwhelming interest in the school since public schools announced they would be on distance learning to start the school year. I capped my enrollment in each class so we were able to still allow for social distancing in each classroom. We do have a waitlist in several of the classes,” she said.
Ten new families have joined the school in the last few weeks, Pittman said. The school offers classes in kindergarten through eighth grade.
She said the National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence prides itself on its strong Catholic identity and rigorous academic curriculum.
“You are getting a good value for the tuition, as well as the academic excellence that the school provides. We’re hopeful that families will want to stick with it after this school year, as well,” Pittman said.