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Roanoke Valley private schools gear up for in-person return

Roanoke Valley private schools gear up for in-person return

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As public schools gear up for a mix of online and in-person classes, or an all-virtual start to the school year, Roanoke Valley private and independent schools plan to open five days per week. Those schools also report seeing an uptick in interest from families who are seeking an in-person alternative to public school offerings.

North Cross School, Roanoke Catholic School, Faith Christian School, Roanoke Valley Christian Schools and Community School are among those that plan to offer five days of in-person instruction when they open for the 2020–21 school year. Each has a plan that details reopening protocols, including health and safety measures. North Cross also plans a testing regimen every two weeks for the first month of school.

“All of this is done to stay open, to teach the majority of our students in person, and to as much as we can ... try to make this place as anti-COVID ... as possible,” said Victor Lamas, North Cross’ assistant head of school for academics.

North Cross plans to reopen Sept. 8, and will offer a virtual component for families who don’t feel comfortable attending in person. Teachers will be able to live stream their class to students at home, Lamas said. About 6% of the independent school’s students have signed up for virtual instruction, he said. North Cross has a projected 523 students for the 2020-21 school year, according to marketing associate Nicki Dabney.

Surrounded by boxes of masks, face shields and other supplies on a recent morning in his office, Lamas said admissions staff have also seen “robust” interest from families.

“We’re going to have one of our best opening falls ever,” Lamas said.

Part of that is due to families who are looking for more in-person instruction than what public schools will offer, and can afford to pay for private school tuition. Lamas also said some interest has come from families new to the area or from families who considered North Cross for years and finally decided that this was a good time to make the transition.

But because class sizes will be smaller due to physical distancing, the school can only hold so many new students. “We are at ... what we call our COVID caps,” Lamas said.

In addition to word of mouth, the school has marketed its reopening plan through online ads, according to Dabney. After schools closed in March, the school also used its website to highlight how distance learning worked.

“In a time when so much felt uncertain, we saw detailed communication as a way to keep our community feeling calm and connected,” Dabney wrote in an email.

Roanoke Catholic has also marketed its reopening plan. Among other efforts, the school took out a full-page ad in The Roanoke Times highlighting its plan to “safely and responsibly” open Aug. 25 “to in-person instruction 5 days a week.”

With distancing measures, the school’s maximum capacity is about 500 students, said Head of School Patrick Patterson.

The school currently has an enrollment of around 400 students, “probably a good place for us to be in a pandemic because there are so many unknowns with COVID, and there’s so many unknowns with COVID with students in the building,” he said.

Community School, an independent school in Hollins for students ages 3 through 14, will require face coverings when indoors or when 6 feet distancing can’t be maintained, according to its reopening plan. The school opens Sept. 1.

Daily temperature checks and health screenings for staff and students are also planned, according to its reopening plan. The school will implement staggered drop-off and pickup times. Meals and instruction will take place outside as much as possible, according to the plan.

“We must find a way to meet our family needs but also respect and help protect everyone else,” Executive Director Linda Roth wrote in a July 18 letter to families. Roth asked families to continue practicing preventive measures and keep a log of daily interactions in order to easily notify others if they test positive for the virus.

Roanoke Valley Christian Schools was among the first to open Monday. Daily, on-campus instruction will be offered at the private school located in north Roanoke County.

Families have been instructed to complete daily health screenings prior to arriving, and face coverings will be used during class transitions and when social distancing cannot be maintained, according to the school’s website.

Faith Christian School, located in southwest Roanoke County, will open Wednesday with physical distancing measures in place. Head of School Peter Baur said in a Facebook video last week that parents and students will be asked to wear masks and answer health screening questions before entering the building.

“This is something we’ve been looking forward to for a very long time,” Baur said of school reopening.

North Cross is unique in the region for its testing protocol. The school has arranged for all staff and students to be tested before they return to school, as the school’s reopening plan mandates. Students and faculty will complete tests again two weeks later and a third time two weeks after that.

“Once a baseline positivity rate is identified, follow -up testing can then be used to determine whether our mitigation efforts on campus are successfully preventing the spread of disease,” the school’s reopening plan states.

Students ages 3 and up will wear masks when indoors or outdoors and unable to maintain 6 feet of physical distancing.

Desks are being positioned 6 feet apart whenever possible, Lamas said. The school has Plexiglas partitions for when that’s not possible, such as lab tables.

Roanoke Catholic also plans daily temperature checks and health screenings when it opens Aug. 25. The private school plans to space desks a minimum of 4 feet apart, Patterson said. Masks are required for students in third grade and up when 6 feet of distancing isn’t maintained. Desk screens will also be used, he said.

Weekly Mass will continue but look different, Patterson said. That may include doing grade-level services instead of all students gathering, he said.

Lamas said he appreciates the work of public school staff, who have far more students and logistics to consider.

“We’re a more self-contained community in that sense that we can do some of these things and have a little bit more flexibility,” he said. “They have a daunting task, and I really admire the work they’re trying to do to get this going.”

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K-12 Education Reporter

Claire Mitzel covers K-12 education for The Roanoke Times. Contact her at (540) 981-3334 or claire.mitzel@roanoke.com. Follow her on Twitter: @c_mitzel.

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