US school closure fears trigger rush towards the private sector

New York: Private schools across the US have reported a dramatic increase in applications from parents concerned their children will miss out next term, as public schools remain closed over coronavirus concerns.

Public school districts in California, Virginia, Washington DC and some other parts of the country have announced they will not be offering in-person learning when term starts later this month.

Zach Lee, an eighth grader at Guntown Middle School, sanitises a desk as he and other students enter their maths class on the first day back to school for the Lee County District in Guntown, Mississippi, last week. Credit:AP

Independent schools, however, have largely been able to adjust to social-distancing requirements with larger campuses and smaller class sizes.

The National Association of Independent Schools says enrolment is usually completed by summer, but many schools have made exceptions to allow in more students due to the high demand. Some have even increased financial aid to help those unable to afford the fees, which can range from $US15,000 to up to $US50,000 ($21,500-$71,500)a year.

In New York, certain thresholds have been introduced for reopening schools. A region must have a daily test positivity rate below 5 per cent over a seven-day rolling period before they are given the green light. If that positivity rate hits 9 per cent, school districts in that region must shut down. The governor, Andrew Cuomo, said on Friday that all of New York's schools could theoretically reopen owing to the low infection rate. But he stressed that each school district must submit a reopening plan that requires approval by the state's health department.

In Washington DC, a proposal for schools to provide a mix of virtual and in-person classes was opposed by the Washington Teachers' Union, which argued schools were not prepared to safely reopen. Distance learning will continue there.

Fairfax County in Virginia reported more than 400 students have already withdrawn this summer, opting instead for local private schools.

"Once Fairfax made their announcement the inquiries and applications came pouring in," Katherine Carbo, director of lower school admission at St Stephen's and St Agnes School in DC said. "Many of the parents I spoke with had already considered an independent school education for their child, but the pandemic was the final push. These parents appreciated that because of the design of our campus and the size of our classes we would have a greater likelihood of being able to reopen this fall."

She said the virus had been most challenging for the school's youngest learners. "They are grieving the loss of their friends and teachers. To be back together safely and in person is the ultimate goal," she said.

The American Academy of Paediatrics has advocated for students to be physically present in classrooms, saying evidence shows the academic, mental and physical benefits of in-person learning outweigh the risks from COVID-19.

Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on Thursday that the "default" position should be to reopen primary and secondary schools, so long as it is done sensibly. Other health experts warn that reopening when the US is still recording huge numbers of cases would be irresponsible.

"I suspect [the increase] has to do with the uncertainty right now about what school will look like for students in the fall, and an understanding that our schools can be more nimble," said Amy McNamer, executive director of the Association of Independent Schools of Greater Washington, which supports 76 private schools.

The Telegraph, London

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