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Private schools in Carroll County readjusting to in-person instruction, weeks before CCPS return

Carroll County Public Schools now plans to return students to school buildings under a hybrid model in mid-October, but the county’s private schools have already been offering in-person learning while making adjustments to protect their communities from the spread of COVID-19.

At five Carroll County private schools — Gerstell Academy, Mount Airy Christian Academy, St. John Catholic School, North Carroll Community School and Springdale Preparatory School — students, faculty and staff are required to wear masks while in the buildings and must have submitted a negative COVID-19 test prior to entering each campus for the first time.

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They also give health screenings to everyone before entering each building every morning, which includes temperature checks. And in accordance with public health guidance, student desks are spaced 6 feet apart, and social distancing guidelines are monitored throughout the day.

The private schools are offering in-person instruction, remote learning or a hybrid of the two, depending on what students’ parents decide.

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“Fully remote learning last spring was emotionally challenging for a good number of our students,” said John Polasko, president of Gerstell Academy in Finksburg. “They missed seeing their teachers and classmates face to face, and they missed out on most of the cherished in-person springtime traditions here at Gerstell.”

Carey Wargo, head of Gerstell Academy Middle School, provides a temperature check for an arriving student.
Carey Wargo, head of Gerstell Academy Middle School, provides a temperature check for an arriving student. (Courtesy photo)

Polasko said he has realized people are inherently social beings and need one another, with video conferencing not able to replace the in-class feeling.

Although some after-school activities are on hold, certain clubs and other activities are available, and students may participate in athletics practices.

CCPS enrollment is down, with about 700 students — 3% of the students enrolled last year — not taking part in online classes. But private schools in Carroll have seen new student enrollment rise.

Mount Airy Christian Academy administrative assistant Jeanine Webster said that school saw a significant increase in enrollment and a lengthy waiting list this year, though she could not provide specific numbers.

“We are also offering home-based learning; when a student is sick or has a sore throat they can choose to Zoom in that day and are able to not miss instructional time,” she said, referring to the video conferencing platform.

If families are willing to keep their children home even when they have a coronavirus-related symptom, even if they aren’t sick, that will help out, Webster said.

Webster believes students respond better to in-person instruction, as they need to be social with other kids. “They are happy to be here, you see a lot of smiling eyes over those masks,” she said.

At St. John Catholic School in Westminster, everyone has been cooperative with protocols and seems to be happy, Principal JoMarie Tolj said.

“The day we welcomed students back was the best day ever,” she said.

Enrollment has risen at St. John, to a point where they did have to turn people away, Tolj said, though she didn’t give a specific number.

Tolj is thankful that all her teachers decided to come back to teach in person. She even had to hire more teachers to be able to separate students in smaller groups.

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At North Carroll Community School, the maximum capacity is 150 students, so social distancing is easily accomplished with smaller classroom sizes, administrator Rebecca Beyer said.

In some classrooms that are too small to accommodate 6-foot distancing, they are maintaining a distance of 3 feet apart, Beyer said, pointing out that the American Academy of Pediatrics includes 3 feet of distance among its recommended layers of protection (though it considers 6 feet ideal).

Spokesperson Rachel Turner said the Carroll County Health Department told North Carroll Community that distancing of 6 feet is generally required “to the greatest extent possible.” The department isn’t routinely inspecting private schools but would if it received a complaint, Turner said.

North Carroll Community isn’t mixing classes like before the pandemic, so everyone is staying within their own classrooms, Beyer said. There are scheduled hand washing times as well.

“Just seeing the students and being back together is really nice right now; we are like one big family,” said Beyer, who also teaches and has been adjusting her lesson plans to work for students both in person and online.

At Springdale Preparatory School, 55 students are currently enrolled, and class sizes are 10 to 11 students per room, to maintain 6-foot distancing, according to Lorraine Fulton, deputy head of school.

Boarding students living in Maryland started classes Sept. 21, while out of state students started Sept. 28, Fulton said. They were all in school, but just virtually until they moved onto the campus, she said. The fall semester started Sept. 1.

Schools where students share living spaces outside of school hours can pose some “unique risks” in terms of the risk of exposure among them, Turner said. A significant factor, however, is how often the students and staff members interact with the outside community.

Turner said the health department doesn’t have specific requirements for boarding schools, but it would review boarding plans based on guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Spokesperson Maggie Kunz said Friday the department is reviewing Springdale’s plans for boarded students. “Our on-call nurses and contact tracing staff are available evenings and weekends if they or other schools need additional support,” she said.

At Silver Oak Academy in Keymar, a live-in program for at-risk and disadvantaged boys and young men, a localized outbreak in May resulted in 28 students and 16 staffers (two Carroll residents) contracting COVID-19.

Since then, however, Silver Oak has had no positive tests while classes have continued, according to spokesperson Lynea Hansen. “We are proud of the efforts our staff and students have taken to stay safe and healthy,” she said.

Springdale also removed over 100 pieces of furniture from parts of the school in order to help maintain social distancing throughout. In the middle school, students stay in their classroom and the teachers rotate in, but students are allowed to switch classrooms in the upper school. Fulton said the upper school students are trusted to move around the school because they are more mature and the class sizes are so small.

Boarding students have to live by the same requirements during the academic day, but in the dorm itself they all have single rooms, which used to be shared, Fulton said. They’re required to wear masks except when in their private rooms.

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Many of the boarding students are athletes and are back practicing with their teams.

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If any boarding students have symptoms of a cold or flu and have at least three of the symptoms associated with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, then they will be quarantined and have to be tested, Fulton said. If they have a positive test they will be sent back home to parents.

Boarding students are allowed off of the campus but are accompanied by a chaperone, though this is more limited due to the pandemic, Fulton said.

“It is a lot of restrictions. They are happy to be here, it has been so long,” Fulton said. “We try to make it as home as possible, since they are living here.”

Fulton said they worked closely throughout the whole process with the health department and Maryland State Department of Education, following all specific protocols.

“Most teachers want to be in person with their students; some students flourish online, and some do not,” Fulton said. “It is spectacular to see all the students back now.”

Representatives for Carroll Lutheran School and Carroll Christian Schools, both in Westminster, did not respond to requests for comment.

Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this article.

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