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Fewer students means some Carroll County private schools planning return to in-person learning

The difference between public and private schools at the start of the 2020-21 school year will be pronounced. Many of Carroll County’s private schools are offering the option for students to return to schools five days per week, with a synchronous virtual option for families who choose to keep their students at home.

These schools’ small sizes and investment in technology like laptops for each student have been contributing factors to what their back-to-school options look like.

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Many crafted their back-to-school plans after surveying families and staff to learn what worked and didn’t work from distance learning in the spring.

Carroll County Public Schools (CCPS), with its student body of about 25,000 students, cannot meet the federal and state guidelines for distancing and building capacity to return to school five days per week with the full student body. This will not be possible unless Maryland moves into Phase III of the reopening plan, considerably removing many restrictions.

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Several of Carroll’s private schools are offering a choice between five-day-per-week instruction in school and completely virtual learning, including Springdale Preparatory, North Carroll Community School, Carroll Christian Schools and Mount Airy Christian Academy.

For all four, the virtual learning options will be synchronous, meaning the students learning from home will be able to receive instruction from their teachers and ask questions at the same time as their peers in the classroom.

“We’re hopeful that [it is] the best of both worlds,” North Carroll Community School Administrator Alex Will said.

Many of the schools of are able to offer what their staff believes will be more robust virtual learning by making sure that each student is provided with a laptop. This keeps them from having to share devices with other students in school or share a family computer that might be needed by working parents or siblings.

At Mount Airy Christian Academy, the school is offering families the choice to re-evaluate on a month-by-month basis whether they will have their student learn in-person or virtually.

Head of School Vicky Webster said the school has had a strong response from students wishing to apply and there is a waiting list for their elementary program. They’re excited that more families are aware of another educational choice in their backyard, she said.

Springdale Preparatory, which normally offers boarding as an option for students, will not offer that for the first month of school before re-evaluating, Deputy Head of School Lorraine Fulton said. These students will start out fully virtual if they are not within commuting distance of the school.

At the same time as they have been preparing for the return to school with new safety measures in place, the school has been in the middle of their accreditation process, which Fulton said adds another layer of details to pay attention to.

Principal and Administrator of Carroll Christian Schools Matt Reisberg said in an email that the number of families who have wanted the virtual option “is very few. Most are looking forward to being back in the classroom. There is no substitute for being in the classroom with the teacher.”

“We are able to do this because we do not have the enrollment that a public school has. If they have 1,400 students and split them in half for hybrid learning they are still at 700. We are at 300 with everyone there. So we can do the on-site 5-day learning,” he said.

One school not offering a fully-virtual option is Carroll Lutheran School. Principal Mandy Gilbart said that they “feel very strongly that the best way to educate their students is in the classroom.”

The goal is “to give them normal back, but in a safer way,” she said.

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Part of keeping the “bubble” of people inside the school small has been choosing not to allow family members, who are normally frequent visitors and volunteers at the school, to come into the building. Gilbart said that it made them sad to make this choice and they are focused on finding ways to keep the families involved in school life including more photo and video sharing and an outdoor fun run.

Virtual tools will still be a part of learning in the classroom. Students each have a Chromebook. The school hopes this will help if an individual student has to switch to virtual learning because they are quarantining, or if the state guidelines push all schools back into fully virtual learning due to a rise in cases.

Administrators from all four of the schools talked about the planning needed this summer to reopen with safety measure in place. This included rearranging classrooms to allow social distancing, providing additional training for staff, setting up additional outdoor classroom space and even changing the materials of the doorknobs.

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