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‘A year of unprecedented growth’: Carroll County private schools did best to maintain in-person education amid COVID

When Mandy Gilbart held an award ceremony for the students at Carroll Lutheran School during the last week of school, she didn’t expect to receive an award herself.

A parent took the principal by surprise when he handed her a citation from Gov. Larry Hogan that recognized her leadership during the pandemic that led to the school staying open for in-person classes the full 170 days and not having a single school-based COVID-19 case.

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Gilbart and the leaders of Carroll County’s private schools reflected on a year of mostly in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, how enrollment has changed as families transitioned from public schools and what next school year could look like.

The citation from the governor read: “on behalf of the citizens of this state, in recognition of your commitment to educational leadership as Principal of Carroll Lutheran School, helping to increase student achievement and academic development during the course of a global pandemic.”

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Mandy Gilbart, principal of Carroll Lutheran School, shows the Governor's Citation she received after a successful 2020-21 in-person school year with zero COVID-19 cases, at the school on Monday, June 28, 2021.
Mandy Gilbart, principal of Carroll Lutheran School, shows the Governor's Citation she received after a successful 2020-21 in-person school year with zero COVID-19 cases, at the school on Monday, June 28, 2021. (Brian Krista/Carroll County Times)

It was presented by Jerry Immler who said he and his wife were impressed with Gilbart’s leadership and reached out to the governor’s communications team to make the request. He said Gilbart was able to address concerns during the school year without making big changes.

“She didn’t make swooping decisions,” Immler said. “She would target her response based on what the issue was and handle it at the lowest possible level.”

“I think it was a year of unprecedented growth,” Gilbart said about the 2020-2021 school year.

And although she said it was a blessing and privilege to be the school’s leader during a time like this, the responsibility was a heavy weight.

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resulted in a lot of late nights and seven-day work weeks to plan, answer time-sensitive parent emails and calculating quarantine times. Keeping up with the COVID guidance, she said, was another full-time job as the school had to update its plan with every update from the state and Centers for Disease Control.

However, the effort paid off with schools remaining open all year with no outbreaks.

Matthew Reisberg, principal of Carroll Christian Schools, said they also made it through the entire school year without having to close due to COVID-19. He added the enrollment has went up and continues to do so. Parents stayed because “they were very pleased with the quality of education they received.”

He said they kept the classes small to a level they could handle.

“Had I known that we were going to have the influx we were going to get, I would’ve got more teachers and expanded,” he said, adding the influx didn’t happen until August.

Classes will be expanded next year, he said. The 4-year-old pre-K class to third grade will go from one class to two. He said they may end up with two fifth grade, sixth grade and 12th grade classes.

Sam Havighurst, administrator of North Carroll Community School, said they also offered in-person learning the entire time to their 149 students. He said they anticipate being at full capacity next school year.

“I really don’t know how to describe it, but we succeeded,” said Jo Marie Tolj, principal of St. John Catholic School in Westminster.

She added they followed all the protocols, the teachers gave 125% and they were not afraid of the virus. By the end of the year, 97% of the student body were in person, Tolj said. She added the archdiocese is not offering distance learning next school year, something the teachers are happy about. And 100% of parents who were virtual, want their children to return to the classroom.

Carroll Lutheran ended the year with 116 students after having about 66 prior to the pandemic. Gilbart said enrollment has held steady since the uptick and 90% have re-enrolled. More families will possibly join, Gilbart said, since they gave tours to four families this week.

“Parents saw the impact CLS had on their students and decided to stay,” she said.

Principal Mandy Gilbart, seen here on the playground at Carroll Lutheran School, was presented a Governor's Citation after a successful 2020-21 in-person school year with zero COVID-19 cases.
Principal Mandy Gilbart, seen here on the playground at Carroll Lutheran School, was presented a Governor's Citation after a successful 2020-21 in-person school year with zero COVID-19 cases. (Brian Krista/Carroll County Times)

The increased enrollment wasn’t too much to bear, according to Gilbart, because the staff worked hard planning before the school year started. In fact, the planning for a COVID-friendly environment ended up helping staff manage the size.

Students were split in cohorts to cut down on potential close contacts. Elementary students were given toolboxes instead of individual classroom supply items. And kindergartners and first-graders were allowed to eat in their classrooms rather than the cafeteria. Gilbart said it was so manageable that they wanted it to continue.

Jodi Lupco, head of Montessori School of Westminster, said they had to adapt their classrooms because of the pandemic. The enrollment was 122 but instead of having 26 kids in the room, they cut it down to 13. Next year, they are able to go back to 155 students.

John Polasko, president of Gerstell Academy, said in an effort to make sure their skills are still sharp, they will have a “cyber day” where all students will learn online once a month. He added although snow days will remain if there’s ever a “snowmageddon” or week’s worth of snow, classes can continue virtually after a snow day or two.

Polasko said virtual learning will still be an option next school year but only for COVID reasons. He noted how difficult teaching in-person and virtual at the same time was for teachers and praised them for their hard work.

Gilbart said she remained strict about following health and safety protocols at Carroll Lutheran. If students had symptoms, they were sent home, even if parents assessed allergies were to blame. She said a handful of parents were upset, angry or surprised, but it was all about the greater good.

As a result, they were able to hold traditional events like field day and a fun run, where they raised more than $20,000 to pay for an outdoor classroom, an eating area and benches by the sports field.

Lorraine Fulton, who retired as the head of school after the school year, said Springdale Preparatory School had students who were both in-person and virtual throughout the school year. There was a point when all students were virtual and some families, about a quarter by the end of the year, chose to remain online the entire time.

However, they were able to continue in-school activities like sports, a slam poetry event and Esports, which allowed in-person and virtual students to participate.

A few of the COVID amenities, like hand sanitizing stations, outdoor sidewalks that lead to classrooms and in-person learning, will remain.

Gilbart said Carroll Lutheran still stuck to protocols, like mask-wearing and large gatherings, though its been lifted by the state. For next year, Gilbart, and other private school leaders, said they will be watching the CDC and local health department guidelines. If the masks orders remain lifted in the state, so will CLS’s.

When Gilbart was surprised by the governor’s citation, she said she was moved by the standing ovation that was initiated by the students. She said she poured so much time and effort and love into last year’s effort.

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“It felt like in that moment they were pouring all that love out to me,” she said.

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