Most kids are back in class at parochial schools
Parochial schools across the suburbs are resuming classes either fully in-person or with hybrid instructional models even as most Illinois public schools begin the school year with remote learning.
They're making the transition with temperature checks, face masks, social distancing, an abundance of hand sanitizers and other safety measures required by state education and health authorities, coupled with smaller class sizes, virtual learning platforms and one-to-one technology.
"What we are able to do that the public schools can't do is meet our community and our students where they are," said Erik Schwartz, high school principal of Westminster Christian School in Elgin which started classes Thursday. "The public school (system) is too expansive. They've got to make policies that fit the entire state or entire district, whereas we get to make policies that are for our school and for our community."
Under a flexible hybrid model, a majority of Westminster Christian's 260 students in preschool through 12th grade attend classes in person while roughly 20 students synchronously learn from home. Class sizes are between 15 and 20 students, and students can switch between in-person and remote instruction for health reasons or due to other circumstances. In school, students must wear masks regardless of distancing except when eating or excused with a doctor's note.
"It's going to be difficult for some of our students to have to wear masks all day," said Schwartz, adding that the state's mandate is not realistic for younger students.
Preschoolers, kindergartners and first-graders will take frequent breaks and have classes in an outdoor tent where they can unmask and learn, he added.
Despite surging cases of COVID-19 in Kane County, parents' overwhelming support gave the impetus to reopen school.
"If our community wants us to reopen and they feel comfortable ... we are going to open safely," Schwartz said. "There's no way to mitigate all risk, but we are going to mitigate as much as we can to serve our families."
Westminster is among the many Catholic, Christian, and Islamic private schools, as well as some publicly funded charter schools, that are reopening to in-person classes or with hybrid models following similar protocols.
Archdiocese of Chicago schools gave parents a choice to opt out of in-person learning and take locally facilitated remote learning.
"Almost all our parents opted to take the in-person learning," said Steve Schacherer, principal of St. Norbert Catholic School in Northbrook.
While some parents of preschoolers are hesitant to send their 3-year-olds back to school, a majority of students in prekindergarten through eighth grade are returning Aug. 20. The school, which once housed roughly 500 students, has abundant space to accommodate roughly 180 students.
Students will go through symptom checks at home and temperature/wellness checks when they arrive at school. New pickup and drop-off procedures ensure each grade enters and exits through different doors.
Aside from socially distancing desks, the school will allow separate outdoor access to students in kindergarten through fifth grade. There will be minimum interaction between students in different grades and they will be spread throughout the building during lunchtime instead of eating in their classrooms. Teachers of special subjects, such as Spanish, art, technology and music, will travel between classrooms, and physical education will be taught outdoors.
"The objective of this strategy is to, as much as you can, keep the homerooms together with only their peers," Schacherer said.
Staggered starts and eliminating bells between passing periods also will help keep traffic flow in the hallway to a minimum, he said. Groups of students will be allowed access to different areas of the school playground on a rotating basis, with the equipment being sanitized between uses.
"We have a small school and a large facility. It puts us in a favorable position, if everyone follows the safety guidelines," Schacherer said.
A lack of unions, plus teachers' willingness to return to the classroom with students present, plays a huge part in why private schools are able to reopen, school officials said.
"None of the staff have expressed any concern to me about coming back," said Jim Toth, head of school at Schaumburg Christian School.
The school has roughly 50 employees and is expecting about 700 students from preschool through 12th grade on campus starting Aug. 31 along with about 125 students learning remotely. Some parents of preschoolers are waiting to see how the first few weeks and months pan out, since there is no remote option for preschool, Toth said.
Pre-COVID-19 class sizes were, on average, 25 students to a classroom.
"That would be our max," said Toth.
He said there likely will be 12 to 15 students per classroom this fall.
Officials plan to space students out as much as possible to the point of moving furniture out of classrooms.
Mixing of students will be curtailed, especially in the elementary grades, and students won't have shared music, art or playroom schedules.
"It's a first time for everybody, so we are taking it day by day," Toth said.
Many public school families whose home districts have switched to online learning are reaching out to private schools to enroll their children.
"We are still processing some requests for transfers in from districts that are going to full e-learning and remote learning," said Brian Liedlich, president of St. Viator High School in Arlington Heights.
Students there will be split into two groups to get acclimated to new safety procedures before classes start for everyone Aug. 24 under a block schedule featuring fewer but longer classes daily through Oct. 23. So far, 835 students will take in-person classes and 106 students have opted for e-learning.
The school's 110 employees have been supportive of the plan to resume in-person lessons for students' social, emotional and academic development.
Should COVID-19 conditions change, most schools are prepared to pivot to a hybrid approach in which students attend classes in-person only on certain days or return to full e-learning.