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Private schools struggle with unknowns as schools reopen

Donoho School

The Donoho School in Anniston. Photo by Stephen Gross / The Anniston Star

With three weeks left until Jacksonville Christian Academy opens, Principal Tommy Miller has as many questions as he has answers. 

How bad will the spread of the virus be in three weeks? How high does a student's fever have to be before they're sent home? How big will the student body even be?

“Some of these decisions will have to wait until the week before school, when we know what our student load is going to be,” Miller said. 

Public schools across the state plan to return to some form of in-person instruction in August, a reopening that has been the topic of much debate as COVID-19 continues to spread. But as public schools debate the reopening, private schools also continue to wrestle with the unknowns of the pandemic. 

“We're hoping that this is something that we do well,” said David Noone, head of school for the Donoho School in Anniston. “But a lot will depend on how the rest of the state and the country deal with the virus.”

Donoho, with about 330 students, plans to reopen Aug. 17, with an orientation on the Thursday and Friday of the week before school opening, with half the school coming in for half-day sessions. 

Noone said Donoho has spent significant amounts of money on electrostatic cleaning machines. Temperature checks will be a regular thing in the coming school year; keeping a physical distance between kids is also a concern. Noone said the school's cafeteria is big enough that students from the upper and lower schools could eat there, in shifts, and still be distanced. 

Noone said the school has spent significant amounts of time preparing a virtual curriculum in case schools are ordered closed again. But there's a reason, he said, why schools want students to return to face-to-face learning, particularly in the early grades. 

"Online or virtual class doesn't really work for a five-year-old," he said. In early grades especially, he said, students need to see teachers' faces and learn interpersonal skills. 

Seeing faces may be a little harder now that Gov. Kay Ivey has expanded the state's mask mandate to Aug. 31, and amended it to apply to schools for second-grade classes and up. Ivey announced the change Wednesday. 

For JCA's Miller, one of the biggest problems in the coming school year is simply knowing how many students — out of a student body that typically numbers around 140 — will return to the school. With more kids, social distancing could be more challenging. With fewer, there could be less money for the school to work with. 

Miller said JCA will take students' temperatures every morning. The school is considering putting shields in the classroom to keep distance between students. Teachers are preparing to use Google Classroom with students who are quarantined, if needed, Miller said. 

"We're still discussing our attendance policy and how it would work under these circumstances," Miller said. In the past, he said, the school has given students an out on semester tests if they have perfect attendance. Now, he said, there's more focus on encouraging sick kids to stay home. 

Most local public schools have offered students the option of in-person learning or online instruction, and some districts plan to go to a “hybrid” model, combining some in-person work and virtual learning, if the state orders schools closed again. 

One local private school is already on that path. Sacred Heart Catholic School in Anniston announced in May that it would move permanently to a hybrid model. School officials cited the change part of a national trend toward hybrid private schools, accelerated by the pandemic. Sacred Heart has also seen a decline in enrollment in recent years, down to about 170 students in May compared to about 240 in the 2017-18 school year. 

Attempts to reach Sacred Heart Principal Mark Proper were unsuccessful. 

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.