The enrollment numbers for private schools and home schooling in Carroll County are growing after hundreds of students left the public schools last school year. Not only are families staying at private schools and at home, numbers show more students are choosing these options as public school enrollment remains hundreds less than the pre-pandemic school year.
Carroll County Public Schools enrollment this year is 24,509 students, according to Carey Gaddis, spokesperson for CCPS. According to last year’s operating budget documents, 25,166 students attended in 2019-2020. The following school year, 24,253 students were enrolled. Administrators projected 1,200 more students would attend public schools in 2021-2022, but that did not happen.
Families flocked to private schools and home schooling during the 2020-2021 school year when students at the public schools switched back and forth from virtual to hybrid learning due to the pandemic. Private schools in Carroll were offering in-person learning at the time. And some parents decided to take teaching into their own hands.
The Maryland State Department of Education reported that 1,256 Carroll County students were home-schooled in 2018-2019. That number increased by 10 the following school year, when the pandemic started. This year, 2,089 students are being home-schooled in Carroll.
Alessa Giampaolo Keener, an advocate for school choice and home schooling, said there are two types of home-schoolers: those who do so for academic and achievement reasons, and those who disagree with the public schools’ mask mandate. She said she expects to see more students move to home schooling if a vaccine mandate is enacted.
Although the public schools have been in-person and full-time since last spring, private school leaders say not only have families remained at their schools, but more have come.
Mandy Gilbart, principal of Carroll Lutheran School, said enrollment has remained steady at 116 kids. A couple of families left, she added, but more families came. The school even had to turn families away as it reduced class size maximums. CLS, which teaches kindergarten through eighth grade, went from having 18 students in a class last year to 16 after deciding to allow for social distancing and “breathing space.”
“I’m hoping we’re able to go back to a class size of 20,” Gilbart said.
All the first through fourth grade classes are at capacity, Gilbart said. She added that the staff and board of trustees wondered if parents would remain after the public schools opened full-time, but those who did “saw what a difference a small class size can make.” She said students who were “flying under the radar” at the public schools were able to receive the attention they needed in the small classroom.
Gilbart, who received a citation from the governor for the way she led the school through the pandemic, said the school year is off to a healthy start. There have been no COVID cases or in-school transmission. Those who needed to quarantine did so because a parent caught the virus.
The kindergartners and first-graders eat in their classrooms. In addition, outdoor eating spaces were built over the summer, students cannot use the water fountains, and the quarantine policy is for 14 days instead of 10.
However, students are not required to wear a mask. Staff members are required to wear them only when they are teaching in small groups, according to Gilbart, and students have to wear them when they are at their lockers. Everyone must wear masks when social distancing is not an option, like during chapel service, she said.
“Our parents, for the most part, really resonate with that,” Gilbart said.
While some parents said they don’t “love it,” no one pulled their child from the school because of the masking policy, the principal said.
John Polasko, president of Gerstell Academy, said enrollment is up 20 to 25 students over last year, which brings the total to 386 students. He said people like that the academy has good mitigation strategies, which include indoor masking, morning temperature checks and a questionnaire on COVID symptoms. After Thanksgiving, Polasko said, students were required to take a rapid test before returning to school.
“We know we need to be careful,” he said. “But also, we believe this is something that’s going to be around for a while.”
He said after spirit week this school year, a positive case was reported in the upper school, which houses high school students. That case affected two other students. As a precaution, the upper school switched to remote learning the following week. After a week of learning at home and testing everyone, students returned and the virus did not spread further.
At Gerstell, which includes pre-K through 12th grade, students were able to attend in-person events this school year, including a homecoming dance outdoors with 300 people, a seventh grade drama production and a Halloween parade on the soccer field.
“It feels a lot more normal than it has,” he said.
Jesse Read, the new principal of St. John Catholic School in Westminster said, like Gerstell, enrollment numbers have increased. Enrollment this year is 307, an increase of 13 students over last year.
St. John’s follows Carroll County’s transmission rates when determining masking. When the county is in high or substantial transmission, students must be masked. When it’s low or moderate, masks are optional.
“We were masking while public schools weren’t masking yet,” he said. “I think that really helped us.”
Read said while parents’ opinions on masking differ, students have done well wearing them. He said he thinks parents are more excited about the mission of the school than COVID policies.
Julie Wike, the new principal at Carroll Christian Schools, said enrollment has grown by 50 students this year to a total of 360.
Wike said in-school transmission has not been an issue. If a student does test positive, it’s because they caught the virus from someone outside the school. The school enforces strict policies for students who have COVID-like illnesses, she said, so students who are coughing, for example, must stay home.
However, masking is optional for Carroll Christian students. Wike said the masks were affecting younger students, who, among other things, are learning how to read and pronounce words correctly. She said optional masking was the “middle ground” administrators decided on. Masking is also optional for staff, she said, though most are vaccinated.
She noted that about 65 percent of students wear masks.
Enrollment at Springdale Preparatory School in New Windsor has stayed the same, according to Gerald Boarman, the new deputy head of school. It’s around 58 or 59 students, he said, with two more students coming in January. He added that a steady stream of parents has been taking tours.
His goal is to have 100 students next year with enrollment increasing by 20 to 25 students each year.
The students at Springdale wear masks. The nurse checks temperatures when students walk in, student lockers are 3 to 6 feet apart, and everyone must wear plastic gloves in the dining hall. Boarman said the cameras in each classroom allow the school to conduct online learning for those who are in 14-day quarantine.
At the Montessori School of Westminster, Jodi Lupco said enrollment went from 122 last school year to 164 this year. A new preschool program also opened.
“Most of the numbers came from preschool and retention,” she said. “We had a lot more students stay from preschool to the elementary program.”
The preschool program had to close temporarily this school year due to a student and staff member testing positive for the virus. Keeping students in pods is one of the mitigation strategies in place, she said. Students and staff wear masks.
Sam Havighurst, North Carroll Community School administrator, said 154 students are attending this year compared to 148 last school year. He said students and staff are screened daily for symptoms, social distancing is practiced, and students are grouped in cohorts. Masks are required inside the building. However, due to vaccine availability, masking will be optional in January.
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Although NCCS had two isolated cases, Havighurst said there has been no in-school transmission.