David Dutrow has spent more than half of his life at Mount Saint Joseph High School in Baltimore – first as a student and now as an English teacher for the past 24 years.
Now, the look and feel of education is so different, as Dutrow and other educators grapple with what school will look like next fall. Despite their advantages, independent schools that rely on tuition from often well-resourced parents are unsettled by a pandemic that shows no signs of letting up. Independent school officials’ challenge is assuring tuition-paying parents that their children will continue to get a curated high-quality education online that can match in-person classes.
Peter Baily, who oversees the Association of Independent Maryland and DC schools with 120-member schools, said his association has been working to offer professional development courses and immediate support to its members, many of whom had never taught online. They also have been consulting with independent schools in California and the Pacific Northwest that are further along, for best practices and a roadmap that will lead to success for Maryland independent schools.
Because they are smaller, independent schools could quickly adjust to online learning
“This has been a complicated year for schools, but because of our size, we had the ability to be nimble and pivoted quickly by putting in place systems and protocols for distance learning,” Baily said. Responding to the immediate crisis was critical, but now the association is working with school leaders on scenarios that could get students back into the classroom in the fall. The scenarios include offering classes on campus with a limited number of students, a hybrid of on-campus and distance learning, or operating completely online.
School administrators in both public and private schools struggle to find the right balance between keeping teachers and children safe and providing in-person classes.
“I think the key point for our schools is that they are working very hard to meet students’ and families’ needs and keep everyone as safe and healthy as possible,” said Myra McGovern, a spokesperson for the National Association of Independent Schools, a membership association that provides services to more than 1,900 schools and associations of schools in the United States and internationally.
NAIS has developed several scenarios to assist independent schools as they prepare for the next school year. “Schools’ plans vary a great deal based on their locations and the age of the students they serve, but the one thing all the plans have in common is a focus on what’s best for students. While responding to COVID has been tough, many schools are trying to make the best of the circumstances,” McGovern said.
Parents have a renewed appreciation for teachers as essential workers
When schools shut down in March, parents were forced into an educator’s role, overseeing their child’s school progress, which has led to a deeper appreciation for teachers. David Dutrow, the Mount Saint Joseph teacher, said he had received emails that show his effort is appreciated. But Dutrow added that it is more important to him to see that his students have not lost ground.
“If there is one thing that parents of school-age kids have learned, it’s that teachers and schools are absolutely essential, essential to the well-being of their children, essential to their family’s well-being, and to society generally,” said Ruth Faden, a professor of biomedical ethics at Johns Hopkins University.
“How schools should open in the fall is about as important an issue as any in this pandemic response. There is no question that children are better off in school buildings, with teachers in classrooms. Getting as many children in classrooms for as many hours a week as is possible has got to be a top priority. It’s the ‘as possible’ part that is the rub. Everyone needs to be watching the numbers — the cases, hospitalizations, and death rates in their localities, as well as the evolving evidence about transmission and illness in kids. And as important as it is to get kids in classrooms, part of honoring teachers for all that they are doing on behalf of their students is recognizing that there are limits to what we can ask of teachers in terms of their own health risks,” Faden added.
Maryland school officials are looking at the risk vs. the benefits of opening school doors
Maryland public school officials are weighing options to get students back in the classroom. Following the closure of public schools in March, the state of Maryland issued its recovery plan for Maryland, which outlines a set of recommendations for reopening schools, but it has largely left reopening to the discretion of the schools and the local school system whether to open schools in a gradual fashion or open to all students, as each school deems appropriate.
“Our fondest hope is that we can open in the fall,” said AIMS Executive Director Peter Baily. “We want to see our children, and they want to see us, but we will do this only if we can be safe,” Baily added.
For now, teachers are working around the clock
“I have been more exhausted in the last three months than the six months before that,” said Dutrow, the Mount Saint Joseph teacher. “I am constantly checking emails because online students may have more questions and require more clarity.” He also has had to adjust his time to meet his students’ schedules, as some may go to bed late and wake late or to make adjustments for students who may need more time to work on an assignment.
Dutrow said students may turn in work at all hours and he wants to be there for his students no matter what time it is.
“Our expectations have to change to a new normal. My hope and dream would be that we somehow miraculously find a cure, but until then, while we want to strike a balance that gives us some contact with our students, the safety of my students, my colleagues, and myself is paramount and must be our primary concern.”