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Students tie dyed West Nottingham Academy shirts during socially-distanced orientation activities.

As Cecil County Public Schools move ahead with virtual learning for all but those students most in need of face-to-face instruction, many families want their children back in the classroom sooner. With smaller class sizes, larger campuses and safety guidelines in place, local private schools will welcome students back for in-person instruction as the school year gets underway.

Tri-State Christian Academy Finance Director Nicole Kellum said they are seeking a balanced approach that will let each family decide what is best.

“We view this as an opportunity. In any problem, you can see the problem, or you can see the opportunity in the problem,” she said. “Our number one priority is keeping our kids and our staff safe, and whatever we have to do to keep them safe, we’re going to do.”

Students at Tri-State will be welcomed back on campus, but can choose to stay remote for the time being and return when they feel ready. Tri-State surveyed families earlier this summer and found that 70 percent wanted to return in-person. About 15 percent of students opted for remote learning for the time being, according to Kellum.

She said that they’ve seen increased enrollment, particularly from elementary schoolers, because many parents feel that children that age struggle with virtual learning. Families, she added, have largely been supportive of their reopening strategy.

“We do have people on both sides of the fence, but very few are on the side of the fence where they’re really fearful about returning,” Kellum said. “Most of our families are ready for this to blow over.”

The school has taken a number of precautions to ensure the safety of students returning to campus. Students will be required to wear face masks indoors and pass temperature checks each morning. Classes will stay separate, with preschool and elementary students using a different entrance than middle and high school students. They have also installed contactless water fountains and upgraded the school’s air filtration system.

Small class sizes mean overcrowding won’t be an issue. Many teachers’ desks will be outfitted with plexiglass protection shields. Teachers have also been preparing to use Google Classroom to keep in-person and remote students in sync.

“The teachers are great sports about it, and they are 100 percent on board. They’re excited. They are constantly thinking of ways they can keep their students safe,” she said. “We’re all trying to pull together.”

Tome teachers miss students

Teachers at Tome School in North East held an “Ed-Camp” to share what they have learned from professional development workshops and have also been training to use Google Classroom. In an email to The Whig, Head of School Christine Szymanski wrote that teachers and staff are feeling nervous, but miss their students and look forward to seeing them again.

“Our mission at Tome is to invest in the intellectual and personal promise of each child,” Szymanski wrote. “This year, meeting that mission starts with providing a safe learning environment for each child—whether that be a physically safe building or an emotionally safe remote learning experience.”

According to Szymanski, about 80 percent of students will be returning to campus, with the others attending virtually. She added that Tome’s admissions office has also seen an uptick in applications.

West Nottingham students return to campus

Most students returned to campus at West Nottingham Academy, a boarding school in Colora, though some are starting the year remotely. Lauren Grow, West Nottingham’s director of marketing and communications, said that students and even some parents were tested as they arrived on campus. According to Grow, the results of their testing process showed no cases of the virus among staff and students.

Despite the circumstances, she added, there was still a spirit of fun during orientation.

“Students are extremely excited to be here on campus,” Grow said. “It’s going to be different than last year, but we’re going to make it work and we’re still going to make it an incredible year for students.”

Many changes to student life will be familiar. Students will wear face masks and follow social distancing guidelines. They will have their own rooms, rather than sharing with roommates. Students will have meals delivered to their dorms until it is safe to congregate in the dining hall. Cleaning supplies will be widely accessible, and sanitation will occur often and thoroughly.

As a boarding school, classes and student life can proceed with some normalcy after an initial period of getting settled. The classrooms are outfitted with cameras and microphones so that students can access lessons remotely.

Grow added that staff will be on duty to do wellness checks and support students emotionally. Keeping student health and wellness is the highest priority at any time, Grow said, and only more so as the virus continues to affect students and families.

While there’s no way to eliminate risk entirely, Grow said, teachers and staff have worked hard to let students return to campus safely.

“Education right now in the United States is completely in flux, and West Nottingham Academy is definitely here to provide a safe place for students to learn,” she said. “We’re one of the only schools in Maryland open right now, and I think that’s something to be proud of.”

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