To step onto the campus of the Gardner School of Arts and Sciences is to step into a parallel universe from the nearby public schools.
Instead of Zoom lessons, there are outdoor classrooms beneath large white tents. Teachers lounge in distantly spaced yard chairs for their professional development, rather than working online from afar.
The Gardner School, a small, private campus near Washington State University Vancouver, will be open for business on Tuesday. The school joins a legion of private schools opting to reopen for in-person instruction, while public school peers will continue remote learning for at least several weeks.
Private school administrators in Clark County say they’re prepared to follow public health and safety guidelines so students can return to the classroom. Some are opting to continue online education. Others, like Seton Catholic High School and Cornerstone Christian Academy, are offering a blended approach.
Many, however, plan to reopen fully.
“It was clear we could follow guidelines if we were creative,” Gardner Head of School Emily Davis said.
(Small) size advantage
State officials recommend schools in counties with high rates of transmission open remotely, or with hybrid models that allow small groups of children onto campus at alternating times. Unlike in Oregon, however, that’s not a mandate, leaving it up to schools to determine whether they can put safety guidelines in place to reopen.
Private schools say they’ve answered that call, creating new classrooms and installing shields on desks. They’ve put mask requirements and alternate schedules in place. King’s Way Christian Schools installed cameras that take people’s temperatures as they walk into the building and scan their faces to ensure they’re wearing a face covering. The Gardner School purchased an application so families can complete daily health screenings from their phones.
Seton Catholic High School will start remotely at first, with students watching teachers on live videos in their classrooms as though they were in the room. Principal Robert Rusk is cautiously optimistic the school will be able to phase students in, 25 percent at a time, to return to full capacity soon.
“We feel very confident,” Rusk said.
Private school officials acknowledge, however, they have built-in advantages over the public school system: smaller class sizes, more physical space to spread out and a highly engaged group of parents.
“I would be naive to say we have the challenges the public school system has,” King’s Way Christian Schools Superintendent Jason Tindol said.
Those advantages are largely available only to those parents who can afford thousands of dollars in tuition. The Gardner School, for example, costs $18,950 a year for students in first through eighth grade. King’s Way starts at $8,815 a year for elementary school students and $12,920 a year for high school students.
Those schools were also eligible for Paycheck Protection Program loans; Seton Catholic High School and Firm Foundation Christian School each received loans between $350,000 and $1 million, while King’s Way received between $1 million and 2 million.
“The private schools can be much more nimble,” said Bob Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education and Human Development at the University of Virginia. “They’re smaller by almost all scale. They deal with a more homogenous population, typically more resourced.”
Despite the cost, private school administrators say they’re flush with families trying to move their children from public school to private schools.
Sandra Yager, superintendent of Cornerstone Christian Academy, said the school has been giving an historic number of tours compared with years past. Cornerstone is offering full, in-person instruction to all students in kindergarten through second grade. Older students can opt between in-person and online instruction.
The school’s roughly $8,000-a-year tuition, meanwhile, will remain the same regardless of which option families pick.
“It’s been a great problem to have,” Yager said of the recent interest in their programs.
When asked about enrollment at King’s Way Christian Schools, Tindol sighs and laughs. An estimated 25 percent of the school’s 900-student body is made up of new students. That’s up from the typical 3 to 5 percent.
“Families are scared,” he said. “Families want to meet in person.”
The renewed interest in private schools doesn’t surprise Pianta. He said the University of Virginia has been inundated with calls from parents looking to organize small pods, home-based classes with a few parents pitching in to pay a teacher for private lessons.
“If parents have the economic means, I can see where the decision to move their child to a private school for some is something that’s likely to increase,” he said. “To the extent that it leaches human capital out of the public schools, it’s going to exacerbate inequities.”
Guidelines, not requirements
The state has advised all schools, public and private, to look at two-week transmission rates in considering whether to reopen campuses. Counties in which the transmission rate is higher than 75 new cases per 100,000 residents are considered high risk and are advised to open schools remotely.
Counties where the transmission rate is between 25 and 75 new cases per 100,000 are considered moderate risk, and can start bringing in small groups of students. Clark County is on the high end of that, with the latest reports showing 71.6 new cases per 100,000 residents in a two-week period.
In Washington, however, those are guidelines, not requirements. The state has left it up to school districts to decide for themselves if they can reopen so long as they’re able to meet safety mandates.
At the Gardner School, which has 75 students in preschool through eighth grade, the choice was clear. Parents wanted their children back in the classroom, Davis said, and the school’s outdoor-driven curriculum gave them the means to do it safely.
“This is completely exhausting, but we feel this is what’s needed for our community’s mental health,” Davis said.