Adapting to Covid with Atlanta Private Schools

Adapting to Covid with Atlanta Private Schools

By Katherine H. Michalak

It’s been the educational challenge of a generation and beyond. How could any school administration possibly expect to be faced with a global pandemic impacting every facet of daily life? The COVID-19 crisis may have shocked local school systems, but commitments to teaching and learning ultimately prevailed, much to the benefit of students. This has been particularly apparent throughout metro Atlanta’s private schools, which have surged forth in the new school term with renewed passion and dedication to fundamentals of education. From classrooms to admissions offices, adapting has been at the forefront, as schools found ways to welcome both established and new students for the 2020-21 school year.

 

The Classroom: The Best of Both Worlds

As the school year started, Atlanta’s local private schools leveraged access to technology to meet the unusual needs of cautious times and thrived off the creative ingenuity of faculty and staff. From stringent social distancing and sanitizing to flexible schedules and synchronous learning models, these schools have maximized their resources to build a safe environment supporting unique circumstances.

The Atlanta Girls School (AGS) started the school year in a hybrid scenario, mapping out an action plan to bring students back on campus in phases while keeping a virtual option for anyone at any time. Faculty utilize technology resources for everything from instruction and tutoring to counseling and coaching. A facilities task force took a holistic look at existing spaces to establish ways to maximize layouts and repurpose larger areas. Class sizes have been reduced and classrooms rearranged to allow for maximum social distancing. Each classroom has a new air filtration system as well as hand sanitizers and disinfectant spray stations. Each Wednesday, the school buildings are shut down for deep cleaning and fogging. Students each lunch in small advisory groups, often outside. Extracurricular activities launched using creative solutions, and performing arts have held virtual performances, including a recent coffeehouse-style talent show produced by editing together student-submitted videos.

The Atlanta International School (AIS) divided classes into smaller groups (pods) with the secondary school following a hybrid model that divides each grade level into two groups, rotating which group is on campus every other week to limit the density of students. Hybrid learning combines face-to-face and online teaching into one cohesive experience. In order to maximize that experience, each classroom has been equipped with webcams, conference speakers and headsets to allow students in the classroom and those learning remotely to interact and collaborate with each other seamlessly. For further safety, all spaces, including classrooms, have been adapted to accommodate safe social distancing, and plexiglass screens and HEPA air purifiers have been installed across campus. All students, faculty and staff are required to wear masks on campus and must complete a daily wellness check through a SchoolPass app before coming to school each morning. All cleaning and sanitizing procedures have been upgraded and enhanced per CDC guidance and medical advice. AIS also has strived to enable co-curricular activities, including virtual STEAM and theatre workshops.

The Galloway School provides laptop issuance to all students, so with those technology measures already in place, students were given the option to return on campus during the fall semester or to continue with virtual learning as deemed necessary. Prior to campus return, all students and faculty were tested for COVID-19 and now complete daily screenings via the MyMedBot app before arriving on campus. Masks are required on campus and are strongly encouraged for athletic activities. Galloway also installed plexiglass barriers at reception desks, hand-sanitizing stations around campus and floor decals to indicate appropriate social distancing and foot traffic patterns. All campus seating areas and classrooms allow adequate physical space between students, and no school supplies are shared at any grade level. Every grade adjusted its logistics to minimize movement in between classes and buildings while maximizing the cultural, social and emotional well-being of community members during this stressful time. Additionally, the entire campus is sanitized several times throughout the day and every night.

The High Meadows School’s mission focuses on learning through connection with nature, which lends itself to effective transitioning for unique social distancing, as students learn outdoors whenever possible around the campus’s farm-like setting. Mitigation practices used to ensure safe learning during the pandemic include smaller cohort sizes, morning health checks, mask requirements and an emphasis on physical distancing with outdoor learning as much as possible. When students are inside, spaces have windows open if possible, and air purifiers are utilized.

Mt Paran Christian School

Mount Paran Christian School (MPCS) implemented a variety of new safety standards to facilitate effective health guidelines. In addition to physical distancing and required face coverings, the school administration also placed students into cohorts to reduce class size, maximized outdoor learning groups on its 68-acre campus and limited large gatherings, including a rotation for weekly chapel that alternates groups attending in person with groups live streaming the service elsewhere. To accommodate the need to temperature scan all daily visitors and faculty, staff and students, the school increased the nursing staff and hired an additional security guard. Hygiene efforts are aided by MPCS’s new cleaning systems, hand sanitizing stations, enhanced signage on campus for hand washing and distancing and designated one-direction stairways. For those families choosing to continue virtual learning, classroom cameras and technology keep students linked to live instruction. A touchless check-in/check-out system and a new carpool management system also allows students to remain in the classrooms in the afternoon, limiting congregating groups.

North Cobb Christian School (NCCS) offers both on-campus and continuous virtual learning options for students; parents can decide which is best for their family. For on-campus learners, facial coverings are provided and required in high-traffic areas, on school transportation and in large groups where social distancing is not possible. Social distancing guidelines are followed in all learning environments, with hand sanitizing stations prevalent around campus and all facilities thoroughly cleaned daily. All restrooms have been optimized with touchless sinks and soap and paper towel dispensers, and touchless water bottle fillers have replaced water fountains throughout the school. Lower grades now use a “family” model to keep classes separated and facilitate any necessary contact tracing. Infrared thermometer stations screen all who enter campus; a second, additional school clinic helps manage student wellness, and detailed health summary reports manage community information. Creative solutions keep extracurricular programming a vibrant part of school life with virtual and livestream platforms for many programs, games and special events.

Springmont

To bring its school community together with one purpose, Springmont Montessori School enacted a Community Agreement outlining safety measures stipulated for both students on campus and those learning at home. All students and staff complete a daily health screening with temperature check, and face coverings are required at all times students or other staff members are present. Hand sanitizing stations and reminder signage are spread throughout campus, all buildings have been outfitted with enhanced air filtrations systems and frequent daily cleaning procedures include disinfection of high-touch surfaces with EPA-registered cleaners and UVA-C wands; additional deep cleaning and electrostatic spraying of all classroom spaces occurs nightly. All classrooms open directly to the outdoors, rather than interior hallways, and lessons are conducted outdoors whenever possible. Classroom furniture has been rearranged for physical distancing, and sneeze guards have been installed to define personal workspaces for each student. Remote, synchronous options are presented for students ages 3 through sixth grade, and all events are held virtually, including the annual Montessori Mile Fun Run, parent observations, parent/teacher conferences, opening night and parent education events and parent association meetings.

Returning to school on a rolling basis according to grade level, The Walker School extends heartfelt gratitude to its entire school community for cooperating with all of its efforts and rising to the occasion in such a powerful manner. Walker put together a task force in late February, and this group has expanded while working around the clock to make sure that students receive a world-class education. This school year incorporates extensive safety measures, including required face coverings, temperature and wellness checks prior to entering school buildings, daily use of a health information app to update data, socially distanced seating throughout the facilities and mandatory assigned seats in classrooms to aid in any necessary contact tracing. New ventilations systems, electrostatic sprayers and sanitizing stations have been added to facilities, and floors are marked with arrows to show safely spaced traffic patterns. A new approach to scheduling helps limit the number of people in a room and the number of class changes per day, as well as streamlines capacity in common areas. Tents set up around campus allow for outdoor classes and innovative extracurricular programming like al fresco band practice and outside drama performances.

The Wood Acres School

A spacious nine-acre campus, abundant cottages housing classrooms, facility improvements, PPE purchases, dedicated faculty and supportive families allowed The Wood Acres School to easily follow the guidelines from the CDC and Georgia Department of Public Health regarding the safe reopening of schools. The first day of school commenced on schedule with facial masks required on campus, updated air filtration systems, extensive cleaning and sanitizing protocols and a signed Parent Partnership Agreement. Families must follow protocols and make sure activities outside of school align with the goals of keeping everyone safe and healthy at school. Also, class size has been reduced to maximize opportunities for social distancing, and upper school students follow a block schedule to limit transition time.

Acknowledging that the global pandemic has provided opportunities to rethink various aspects of education, Woodward Academy sees the challenge as a call to action to continue building on its collaborative environment. Advanced technological tools at Woodward bring remote or hybrid teaching formats to a distinctive new level with 21st century lesson design and 360-degree Owl-cams allowing remote students to easily interact with those in the classroom. Recognizing from the spring that assessment was one of the biggest challenges in a remote setting, Woodward put together a Project-Based Learning Team to explore authentic alternatives, and specialists at the school stay in constant communication to share best practices. Because of its ample technology, including a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy in the Upper School, Woodward initially made the transition to fully remote learning smoothly. Now functioning on a hybrid model, the patterns and protocols are firmly in place to give structure for every student while also preserving the fluidity to adapt to any changing scenarios. On campus, health and safety initiatives include new standards for physical distancing, required facial coverings, advanced disinfection procedures, automated air filtration systems and accessible hand sanitizing stations. Students complete a daily wellness check before heading to school and self-report their status through an online portal, which also helps monitor overall school community data.

 

Admissions: A New Experience

As the 2020-2021 school year approached, many families faced challenges and decided to look at the various educational options in their communities. In many instances, private school became a real possibility, and even though many admissions deadlines had passed, these local institutions adjusted their protocols and found safe and innovative ways to bring new students into the mix—and those new options continue today as people continue to consider opportunities with metro Atlanta’s private schools.

As local families shifted their educational perspectives in the COVID world, the Atlanta Girls School enrolled new students through the summer and even into the start of the school term. Today, many of the traditional prospective student events at the Atlanta Girls’ School occur virtually, which allows for them to be held more frequently. This year’s annual Open House will also be virtual, and AGS continues to host virtual shadowing days, connecting prospective students with current students in a new format.

All Atlanta International School admissions tours and events are now virtual, taking prospective parents into classrooms via some of the same technology used for virtual learning. Students are able to attend virtual shadow sessions and have Q&A sessions with current students to learn more about what it means to be a student at AIS.

The traditional Discover Galloway event series has been modified to give families the ability to explore campus in a more individualized setting by offering private tours. An admissions-specific landing page on the school site houses many of the materials usually presented at an open house or in-person meeting and also includes videos from several familiar Galloway faces, including the Head of School, the principals, the administrative team and others. Additionally, The Galloway School’s announcement to start in-person schooling for the 2020-2021 academic year generated increased interest, particularly at the early learning levels, so these new admissions resources have been a valuable resource.

The close-knit learning community at High Meadows is enhanced by a diverse student body and active family support. The majority of admission events currently take place online or after school hours with the goal of informing prospective students in meaningful ways as they explore school options. The school continues to have enrollment availability at some grade levels for the current school year and also has opened up admissions portals for the next academic year.

Interest in the Mount Paran Christian School experience has definitely increased this year, especially once public school districts announced plans to begin their semester virtually. The admission team and school administration carefully addressed new requests in order to maintain small classes so that physical distancing mandates could be maintained. As such, some grade levels do have waitlists for admission. However, MCPS continues to offer virtual tours for families, but also has appointments available for one-on-one, in-person tours with masks. Videos available on the school website highlight the school environment for the academic year.

North Cobb Christian School

North Cobb Christian School noted a definite uptick in enrollment and added classes to several grade levels to accommodate new students. Prospective families are welcome to schedule a personal tour of NCCS’s 50-plus acre campus anytime by contacting the admissions department and are also encouraged to participate in a shadow day with a current NCCS student.

By lowering enrollment numbers, Springmont has been able to limit classes and cohorts to 12 to 15 students each for health protocols and now maintains a waitlist for each level. Prospective families are offered individualized virtual tours and classroom observations with the Director of Admissions and can have outdoor campus tours by appointment after school. All admission information is readily available on the school’s website, and student assessments are successfully accomplished via Zoom interviews.

The Walker School

The Walker School also has observed a definite increase in the number of prospective student inquiries as families consider individualized learning plans for their children. Some are accelerating the timeline of when they originally planned to switch to private school, choosing to make the change now, and some are just beginning to investigate the idea of private education. At this time, Walker holds tours virtually, connects prospective families with current families for input and conducts student interviews via Zoom.

The early notes for the 2021-22 admissions season have shown a growing interest in all grades and programs for The Wood Acres School. Inquiring families are looking for academic excellence and a commitment to an affordable private school experience in a beautiful environment with dedicated faculty. Wood Acres offers tours and open houses by appointment through registration on its website.

Woodward Academy has welcomed an exponential increase in inquiries, and overall enrollment has grown in recent months. Much of that growth occurred in the late summer, as parents looked for alternate school arrangements for their children. Events for prospective families have gone entirely virtual for the time being. An interactive, online map presented on the school’s website helps visitors navigate the campus and tour guides take families on individualized guided tours.

 


For more information, visit:

Atlanta Girls School, atlantagirlssschool.org

Atlanta International School, aischool.org

The Galloway School, gallowayschool.org

High Meadows School, highmeadows.org

Mount Paran Christian School, mtparanschool.com

North Cobb Christian School, ncchristian.org

Springmont Montessori School, springmont.com

The Walker School, thewalkerschool.org

The Wood Acres School, woodacresschool.org

Woodward Academy, woodward.edu