Why do private schools push in-person learning? 'The social-emotional health of our kids'

  • Deacon Mark Plaiss teaches in the chapel at Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein, with students socially distanced.

      Deacon Mark Plaiss teaches in the chapel at Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein, with students socially distanced. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Students at Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein keep socially distanced while walking through the hallways during passing periods this school year.

      Students at Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein keep socially distanced while walking through the hallways during passing periods this school year. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • A class debate in French IV/V at Elgin Academy. Most of the students are in the classroom, but one of the debaters is using distance learning from home.

    A class debate in French IV/V at Elgin Academy. Most of the students are in the classroom, but one of the debaters is using distance learning from home. Courtesy of Elgin Academy

  • Seventh-graders at St. John's Lutheran School in Lombard socially distance, wear face coverings and follow other COVID-19 safety protocols.

    Seventh-graders at St. John's Lutheran School in Lombard socially distance, wear face coverings and follow other COVID-19 safety protocols. Courtesy of St. John's Lutheran School

  • Students and teachers at Our Lady of the Wayside School in Arlington Heights follow COVID-19 protocols such as social distancing and wearing face coverings to enable the return of in-person learning this fall.

    Students and teachers at Our Lady of the Wayside School in Arlington Heights follow COVID-19 protocols such as social distancing and wearing face coverings to enable the return of in-person learning this fall. Courtesy of Archdiocese of Chicago

  • Students eat lunch outside at Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein.

      Students eat lunch outside at Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Erin Major teaches Calculus III at Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein. Major uses special video technology that follows her as she walks around the classroom so that her remote students can see her at all times as well.

      Erin Major teaches Calculus III at Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein. Major uses special video technology that follows her as she walks around the classroom so that her remote students can see her at all times as well. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

 
 
Posted9/28/2020 5:30 AM

Getting a school community to commit to COVID-19 protocols around the clock for a safe, in-person learning environment isn't easy, but leaders of several suburban private schools say there's a reason they've made that their goal this fall.

"I want to make sure the quality of the education is there," said Brad Bonham, president of Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein. "One of my biggest concerns is the social-emotional health of our kids."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

For six weeks, Carmel has been implementing a hybrid model of instruction in which half the students are in class and half are learning remotely for four days each week.

Strict protocols include having all who enter the building attest to their recent health and travel history, as well as have their temperatures taken. Anyone exposed to or testing positive for COVID-19 is expected to self-quarantine. If even two staff members fell into that category simultaneously, the whole school would revert to remote learning for two weeks.

The way last school year ended gave administrators the incentive for all the research that went into Carmel's plan for the sake of the students, Bonham said.

"It had been since March that they had been together, and they were really struggling," he said. "Our first day of school is one I'd never forget."

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Bonham said Carmel's in-person learning plan is tailor-made for its 1,075 students and 150 faculty and staff members, and it isn't necessarily a ready-made model for any other school to follow.

"It has to do a lot with the community that you serve," he said. "I would never be critical about another's decision."

KrisAnn Milas, director of admissions at St. John's Lutheran School in Lombard, said commitment from the school's 204 students, their parents, staff and the school's longtime cleaning company were key to a return to in-person learning.

"As soon as last school year ended, we hit the ground running," Milas said. "The social-emotional toll it was taking on students was great. It was a pretty crazy challenge to keep up with all the data. But we knew that many day care centers were reopening within CDC mandates."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Even the youngest students have been cooperating with mask requirements and social distancing, she added.

"The kids have been stellar about following all the rules," Milas said. "Remarkably, they do so well. ... You've got to believe we're on our 'A' game."

But even with the best of intentions, in-person schooling hasn't gone off without a hitch.

Marian Central Catholic High School in Woodstock opened the school year with all students attending in person, five days a week. But about two weeks into the school year, after a number of students became infected with COVID-19, the school switched to virtual learning for two weeks.

The school has since welcomed back students with a hybrid model, in which half attend in person every other day.

The 181-year-old Elgin Academy in Elgin has been through pandemics before, including the 1918 flu that was the deadliest in modern times. With 230 students divided among multiple buildings on campus, the school found itself relatively ready for the adaptations needed to restore in-person learning for the majority of students who chose it this year, Admissions Director Bonita Goist said.

Offering instruction from prekindergarten through high school, the small and nimble academy has received great cooperation from its students and staff, as well the Kane County Department of Health, she added.

They understand the value of in-person instruction and doing what they can to keep from returning to remote learning exclusively, Goist said. That includes faithfully wearing masks at all age levels.

"The kids are not bothered by that at all," she said. "They're keeping their masks on."

Goist refrains from classifying remote learning as a poor substitute, however.

"I think remote learning can be very good," she said. "Obviously the social aspect is missing, and that can be very important."

That social component and the commitment needed to keep it in place also have been characteristic of the early experience this school year of Our Lady of the Wayside School in Arlington Heights, officials said. Small class sizes also play an important role.

"OLW worked hard to reopen for in-person learning because they believe so strongly that it's the right thing for the students," Principal David Wood said in a prepared statement. "When you walk around the school or see the students outside for a snack, an outdoor lesson, PE class or recess, you can see how well they have adapted, even the youngest students."

The partnership with parents has been a vital component of the plan, with the school asking them to carefully explain the new procedures to their children before the school year began.

"Less than 5% of OLW students chose remote learning," Wood said. "Some families that originally thought they would choose the remote learning option decided to return to in-person learning because they saw the safety protocols were being implemented."

• Daily Herald staff writer Charles Keeshan contributed to this report.

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