Private schools see surge of interest as remote vs. hybrid debate continues

  • Bishop Brady Principal Andrea Isaak Elliot points to small circle stickers used to color code lockers in the hallway of the school on Thursday. Each student will be three lockers away from another, as indicated by the colors, and when those students will have access to their lockers. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Bishop Brady Principal Andrea Isaak Elliot in one of the smaller classrooms at the school on Thursday, August 20, 2020. The class sizes are reduced so that the desks are the proper distance and students will be wearing masks. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Bishop Brady Principal Andrea Isaak Elliot in one of the smaller classrooms at the school on Thursday, August 20, 2020. The class sizes are reduced so that the desks are the proper distance and students will be wearing masks. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Bishop Brady Principal Andrea Isaak Elliot in the art classroom at the school on Thursday, August 20, 2020. The class sizes are reduced so that the desks are the proper distance and students will be wearing masks. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Bishop Brady Principal Andrea Isaak Elliot points to the color coded lockers in the hallway of the school on Thursday, August 20, 2020. Each student will be three lockers away from another because of the colors and when those students will have access to their lockers. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Bishop Brady Principal Andrea Isaak Elliot stands in the computer classroom at the school on Thursday. The class sizes are reduced so that the desks can be spread out the proper distance and students will be wear masks. Some computers are turned with signs saying that they were not to be used. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Bishop Brady Principal Andrea Isaak Elliot walks in the school’s hallway where desks that will be removed line the hallway. The desks will be put in storage before students arrive. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The sign for Concord Christian Academy on Regional Drive in Concord. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The exterior of Concord Christian Academy on Regional Drive in Concord. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor Staff
Published: 8/22/2020 12:38:15 PM

When Emma Sisti heard the announcement that Concord School District was going remote in September, she knew immediately that the model wouldn’t work for her family.

Sisti is a public defender and the mother of three boys, one fifth-grader and one second-grader at Christa McAuliffe School, and one in pre-K. She and her husband Jeremy Clemans, also a public defender, have busy work schedules, and balancing that with keeping young children engaged with their schoolwork throughout the day is more than a challenge.

“The remote learning option would be incredibly difficult for us to navigate because of the amount of time we would have to take off and the uncertainty it would be giving to our employer,” Sisti said. “They can’t be at home by themselves doing work on their own. You can have the most motivated and intelligent fifth-grader in the entire world and you can’t expect them to just do everything without some sort of parental direction.”

As public school districts around the region tentatively reopen with hybrid or remote models, some parents are looking to switch to private schools, which are mostly operating in-person. As a result, New Hampshire private school officials say they are seeing an increase in interest and enrollment beyond what was expected.

Concord School District plans to be completely remote at least until the end of September, with exceptions made for students at the high school’s technical center and special education students.

Sisti says she began calling private schools the Monday after the Concord School Board made its decision.

As of Tuesday, her boys were still on the waiting list at St. John’s Regional, Green Valley School and Meeting House Montessori, all schools that are planning for in-person learning.

“I have to, as a parent, balance the risk to the benefit,” Sisti said. “Is the benefit of attending school full time, with proper safety precautions, is that greater than the low risk of them getting sick? In my mind, if there is a proper plan for reopening...that is a risk that we could absorb.”

For many area private schools, the sudden peaked interest is an unexpected windfall.

Scott Bohan is the dean of admission at St. Paul’s School in Concord. He says back in the spring there was some concern in the admission office that families wouldn’t choose to send their kids away to private boarding school during a pandemic. But those fears turned out to be unwarranted when summer hit and his phone started to ring — and ring, and ring — with people who had not applied to St. Paul’s but who wanted to, after they learned their local school system was closing.

“This has probably been the busiest summer I’ve ever had, yielding phone calls from people trying to get their kids into St. Paul’s,” Bohan said. “It’s been fascinating to see how this has unfolded, from this being a major concern to...we can take many more.”

St. Paul’s School will be bringing students back on campus Aug. 31 for in-person classes, while offering remote learning for those who prefer that option. Returning students are required to self-quarantine for two weeks and must test negative for COVID-19 within four days of arriving on campus. The school is making masks mandatory indoors, including in dorm common spaces like bathrooms and hallways.

St. Paul’s enrolls students far beyond Concord, from 40 U.S. states and several countries. Bohan said admission interest has come in waves over the summer, as public school districts in different parts of the U.S. have made their decisions.

“When California announced they were going online, we started hearing a lot from California. Here in Concord, as local districts announced, local people started to call asking if we have spots for this fall,” Bohan said. “It’s already boosted interest in our application process for next fall.”

Among parents who desire in-person learning for their kids, the reasons vary. Many say the quality of instruction for their kids will be richer and more valuable in person. Some, like Sisti, need supervision for their children during the day while they are at work.

The Boys and Girls Clubs of Central NH has moved to address this problem by offering a supervised space for Concord students to do their work, at a cost of $135 per child, at a location nearby, possibly the Steeplegate Mall.

Other parents are opposed to remote-only models because they say the COVID-19 infection rate is low enough in central New Hampshire that going remote is an unnecessary sacrifice.

Concord parent Jonathan Lax says he thinks Concord School District should have chosen a hybrid or in-person model rather than going remote, based on the data that is available on transmission rates in the region, and testimony local infectious disease expert Dr. James Noble gave at a school board meeting this month.

“The data suggests its safe to go back, they hired an expert who said it is safe to go back, at least partially. I think they are going to lose a lot of student capital,” Lax said. “We are willing to take some risks to get our kids education.”

New Hampshire currently has 255 active confirmed COVID-19 cases, with children ages 0-19 making up 7.2% of that total. Concord has between 1 and 4 cases.

Concord parent Anne Zinkin, Lax’s wife, is pulling her son from the public school district and enrolling him in Bishop Brady High School in the fall.

“It’s just not true that in Concord, New Hampshire right this second, sending your kid to school is equivalent to risking your kid’s life. But that’s kind of how it was presented,” Zinkin said.

Bishop Brady High School was facing similar enrollment concern that international students, who make up about 13% of the student body, would not return due to the pandemic. But principal Andrea Elliot told a Monitor reporter Thursday that an increase in enrollment from local families has gotten the numbers back to what they usually are, and the number of interested people reaching out to the admissions department has increased.

Bishop Brady will reopen Aug. 27 for in-person classes five days a week. Masks will be required in the school building, and desks will be arranged six-feet apart. Teachers will also be using outdoor learning spaces in the courtyard and under tents outside through the fall.

Brian Burbach, headmaster at Concord Christian Academy, said the K-12 private school has seen applications increase so that the school now has waiting lists due to the reduced class sizes that are part of the school’s reopening safety protocols.

Concord Christian will reopen Sep. 8 for in-person classes. Classrooms will be arranged to create a minimum of three feet between desks. Masks aren’t required in classrooms but are required on school buses and while moving around the school building, according to the school’s reopening plan document.

As Sisti’s family waits to hear back from private schools about enrollment for the fall, she knows they may not be admitted. As a backup option, she has notified her employer that she will be taking FMLA leave for the month of September, and they are considering hiring a college student as a tutor to help out as well. But her hope is that they will be in the classroom full-time.

“I would not even be thinking about private school if it wasn’t for this. I am very supportive of the Concord School District and supportive of all our teachers,” Sisti said. “It is not a decision I want to be making.”




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