From the start of planning for this academic year, the staff at Tandem Friends School wanted to bring all of their students onto campus.
“Community is what Tandem is all about,” said Whitney Thompson, head of school at the Albemarle County private school.
But with the space requirements for social distancing, that would have meant that one class would have been broken into three sections — a classroom with the teacher, a group in a satellite room on campus and one learning at home.
“That was just too many variables,” Thompson said.
Instead, fifth- and sixth-graders are on campus four days a week while the seventh- through 12th-graders come to school every other week. In addition to the new schedule, the school upgraded its ventilation systems and installed large wedding tents outside, among other changes, in order to have in-person classes during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tandem has 230 students in fifth through 12th grades, and is one of several area private schools that are offering in-person classes, albeit with several modifications. Public health officials and parents speaking at area school board meetings have pointed to the private schools as proof that in-person learning during the pandemic is possible.
No outbreaks among K-12 schools in the Thomas Jefferson Health District have been reported as of Sunday evening, though there are nine outbreaks in progress across the state, according to the Virginia Department of Health.
Three area independent schools responded to interview requests from The Daily Progress. Thompson and officials at Charlottesville Waldorf School and St. Anne’s-Belfield School highlighted the undertaking involved with opening their doors this year and the lessons they’ve learned.
With smaller enrollments, private schools tend to be more nimble, though all schools have to work with area health departments on reopening plans and follow state guidelines.
Thompson said that over the last few months, they’ve found their new model is doable and sustainable while weighing the pros and cons of different approaches and looking at what’s worked well and what needed to be tweaked.
“But it also means that everything feels a little bit kind of changeable all the time, which is not what schools are usually like,” she said. “Schools are usually very predictable, and the predictability and the routine is reassuring. So it’s kind of mentally exhausting to not be sure about what the routine is.”
Thompson said Tandem made a significant investment in purchasing large air filtration units for each classroom. That, along with implementing mitigation measures such as opening windows and doors, have helped to make staff, students and parents more comfortable with the air they breathe.
“And with all those things in place, it’s comfortable and seems like a very sustainable system,” Thompson said. “ But you know, we’ve been able to try out all these different things because we’re smaller. If we’re going to set up air filtration units for all of our classrooms, it’s a lot of money and it’s a lot of classrooms, but it’s nothing like a large public system.”
To help minimize disruptions for the older students when they are at home, Thompson said they kept the class schedule the same. That means there’s not separate remote learning groups.
Thompson said that setup allows for the class communities to stay intact and minimize disruptions as students have to quarantine or move to an all-remote learning option if necessary. Students with symptoms of COVID-19, even if they don’t have the virus, can’t come to school.
“Each independent school has made different decisions as they’ve set up their school year, and everyone’s had to make various different sacrifices in order to make other things work,” Thompson said, adding that there’s no perfect solution. “… Because nobody has the structures in place to be able to fit with these mitigation plans and run things as usual.”
Thompson did say that it’s essential for schools to have layers of mitigation systems in place because “we don’t really exactly know how it all kind of fits together,” she said.
Those systems, she’s found, are effective and exhausting for staff and students, especially for those who have to switch between all-remote learning and going to campus week to week.
“I think we are really happy that they’re not stuck in one of those modes at all times, but there’s a fatigue factor in both,” Thompson said.
Mask wearing, a key strategy, has become routine for students and staff, even though it was a challenge to hear students at first through the cloth face covering. Room mics, Chromebooks and headsets helped with that issue.
“Essentially, each teacher has been experimenting with different ways of using Google tools and headsets and microphones and cameras, and has found the ones that they are best able to do that fit with their pedagogical priorities,” Thompson said. “The students have different experiences in each class.”
The 100 students at the Waldorf School have been outside for all of their classes since school started in September.
Amanda Tipton, director of the school, said a motto for this year is that “there’s no bad weather; only bad clothing.”
A woodworking teacher led an effort to build desks, which wrapped up in mid-October. Before they had desks, students used lawn chairs that they could carry around. The different grades have a designated shelter with tarps that the school built along with an indoor classroom for small group work. The largest class was assigned to the school’s open-air pavilion, which was purchased prior to the pandemic and used for events.
“They have the best real estate because there’s already a chalkboard in there, and it was really well-suited to have a larger class,” Tipton said.
For the first several weeks of the school year, Tipton said they were blessed with good weather, which helped.
They had to work through the logistics of rainy days, but academically, she said the outdoor classes have been going well.
“It’s really nice to see the kids outside so much,” Tipton said. “… Since our teachers have the kids spend a good deal of time outdoors anyway in a Waldorf school, it wasn’t a huge leap for us to figure out how to do outdoor classrooms.”
Still, they started the year a little later than usual to give teachers more time to plan for the change.
The school’s Board of Trustees started a campaign last month to raise $10,000, to be used for expanding and winterizing the outdoor learning spaces and improving the indoor air filtration systems. As of Sunday, they’ve raised $4,415, according to the school’s website.
If students have to go inside, each classroom has its own HVAC unit, and Tipton said they are looking into changing the units’ settings to make the classroom safer.
She said the school hasn’t had any coronavirus cases, though they’ve told families that this year isn’t about avoiding the virus but being prepared for when there’s a positive case. She credited the school’s ability to navigate the pandemic to the quick responses from the health district to their questions.
Tipton said she’s been impressed with how the youngest children wear their masks and don’t complain. She had visions of children filing their masks up with sand from the sandbox, but that hasn’t happened.
“That is the gift of being a child in this time, is that they just accept what is come to them, and they live into it,” she said. “They’re all just so happy to see each other again, too.”
A takeaway for Tipton after the first few months of the year is the need to support teachers and figure out ways to give them breaks and extra support.
“One of the things that we’re dealing with is being a little understaffed for everything that has to happen,” she said. “… You’re holding your class, but on top of that, you’re ensuring multiple hand washes, you’re ensuring that you’re wiping down surfaces multiple times a day. That really adds a lot of pressure for our teachers.”
Tipton said that looking back, they all needed more time to adjust to the outdoor spaces.
“But then again, no one had really used an outdoor classroom in this way, so maybe they wouldn’t have known what they needed until they were actually in it,” she said.
Tipton said that they were working to make the model more sustainable for teachers. To that end, the Waldorf School will shift students in first through eighth grade to a four-day schedule with distance learning on Fridays, for the period of Dec. 4 to Feb. 12, in order to give teachers more planning time.
Most of St. Anne’s-Belfield’s 888 students have classes in-person five days a week, with 139 opting for all-online learning. The school serves students from preschool through 12th grade.
Online students take their classes at the same time as their in-person peers, watching a live-stream of the class. At lunch time, they might tag along via an iPad, said Lisa Ha, chief strategic communications officer for St. Anne’s.
“There’s just this great level of appreciation from the students that they’re able to connect as kids,” Ha said.
The school has about 49 international students learning online, which means they are taking classes on East Coast time, regardless of where they live. Another 24 students are living in the school’s dorms.
During indoor lunch, students sit in assigned seats and face the same direction. Social distancing practices vary by grade level. The preschool program has moved outside.
Students and teachers are encouraged to get outside as much as possible. The school rented tents to provide a space for them to gather.
Autumn Graves is in her first year as head of school at St. Anne’s. For her, a key lesson from the first few months of the academic year was that the mitigation strategies are working.
“We’ve been really fortunate and had very few positive cases,” Graves said. “They’ve all been contracted outside of school, often in group settings.”
Each campus has a disinfection team tasked with spraying down all high-touch surfaces. Additionally, daily health screenings are important, as well as requiring a medical clearance for students with symptoms to return.
“A negative test is not clearance,” Graves said. “Having to have a conversation with their primary care physician or a medical provider and looking at a series of questions that that doctor needs to sign off on, I think has really helped us to minimize spread.”
Graves has told the staff that she doesn’t want to waste a global pandemic.
“You shouldn’t waste that opportunity, and sometimes we as humans don’t rethink what we’ve been doing for a long time because it feels like it works, but a lot of times that complacency really stops us from being iterative, innovative and just really clear on why do we do what we do,” she said, citing the outdoor preschool program as an example of this.
They’ve also started to rethink classes, the course load of students, the use of space across the two campuses and changes to the Residential Life program.
“We adjusted our schedule and we’ve had to focus on what matters, what counts in a different way — that more is not always better,” Graves said.