Schools across the nation are discussing their return to learn plans as the start of the school year quickly approaches, but private schools in Williamsburg are already starting to move forward with plans for in-person instruction.
At Williamsburg Christian Academy, Johnny Graham, head of school, said they announced their hybrid return to learn plans as early as May 15. Preparations and decisions about reopening were made early because as soon as the school closed in March, administration and staff began to consult medical professionals and prepare for August.
“It was a mixture of best medical information, common sense and a lot of prayer,” he said. “There were a lot of administrative meetings to debate and analyze the information we were given. But because information changed daily about the virus, we knew we could either choose to react to the changing information on a daily basis or we can provide some sort of comfort and vision to our community.”
Williamsburg Christian’s plans for reopening involve a number of updated policies and procedures to protect students and staff and a new hybrid learning schedule. The school plans to have four days of on-site instruction for lower school students and three days of on-site instruction for middle and high school students. The other days will be supplemented by online learning systems.
Graham said it’s easier for the school to integrate online learning platforms because Williamsburg Christian had already been using a learning management system before the pandemic for students who were abroad. But incorporating this online learning is also important so students will feel comfortable with virtual platforms in case the school has to revert back to entirely virtual education.
“If our governor puts us back at Phase 2, we have to be ready for that and so technology is the leveler of the playing field,” he said. “We feel confident that at a moment’s notice, we can revert back to a previous phase should that be required.”
But private schools’ return to learn plans hang in the balance of Gov. Ralph Northam’s decision about whether or not to move back to Phase 2 on Tuesday. If Northam decides to move back, private and public schools will find themselves readjusting any return to learn plans they’ve already made.
At Walsingham Academy, administrative staff have planned for in-person classes starting in the fall but Sister Mary Jeanne Oesterle, school president, said they will adapt based on recommendations from the governor.
“We feel ready [to open] without question, but we know the governor will speak to us [on Tuesday] so we don’t know what will happen,” she said.
If Virginia remains in Phase 3, Walsingham Academy prepares to fully reopen with some updates to operations and procedures.
For example, the school has limited its class sizes and measured the classrooms to distance student spaces six feet apart. Ryan Cane, the school’s spokesman, said Walsingham put a capacity limit on grade levels but is making sure former students are able to be enrolled.
The school will also implement daily disinfectant fogging of the campus before class each morning and will require students to bring their own lunches. Students and staff will also have their temperature checked daily before entering the building and the amount students move between classrooms will be limited.
With only about 450 students, Oesterle said Walsingham has a greater ability to social distance students than larger populations at public schools. It’s also a benefit that Walsingham students don’t rely on a bus route for transportation.
But Graham said the same worries for public schools and community health apply to private schools. The school is expecting students won’t naturally socially distance because they’ve been away from their friends so long. So all schools, even small ones, have to create certain barriers in place to keep the students from getting near each other.
“It’s a gargantuan task, even when you’re small, to protect students in the way they should be protected,” he said. “It’s not going to automatically happen on its own, so school leaders need to be prepared.”
Both Walsingham and WCA are waiting to hear directions from the state regarding Phase 3, but the schools have already created an in-person return to learn plan for the fall that they hope to move forward with.
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