As more public schools turn online, private schools plan for classrooms

Part of the Lovett School campus in Buckhead. (File photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Part of the Lovett School campus in Buckhead. (File photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

As public schools across metro Atlanta retreat online from the pandemic, private schools say they are still planning to greet their students on campus in August.

By Thursday morning, most of the largest school districts in metro Atlanta had announced they would be starting the year online.

Private schools, meanwhile, have been steadfast with plans to open campuses. They have been careful to say things could change, but have also pointed to the advantages they hold.

Many have large properties that allow for outdoor activities, such as lunchtime under a grand tent, and disease experts say the coronavirus is less able to infect people outside. Private schools also tend to have fewer students per classroom, making it easier to adjust seating at a safer distance. They also have resources to buy safety technology, such as electrostatic sprayers to disinfect surfaces.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution corresponded or talked with over a dozen private schools in metro Atlanta and across the state this week, and only one said its plans were unsettled. The rest said they were expecting to open on the regularly-scheduled date next month, with half confirming no changes in planning as of Thursday.

Westminster in Atlanta is planning to open Aug. 13, “understanding that flexibility is critical as the COVID-19 pandemic is continuously evolving,” spokeswoman Liz Ball said in an email. The school in Buckhead is “fortunate to have a large campus, including a new academic building and extra modular classrooms, which will allow for smaller class sizes and increased social distancing,” she said.

Jack Hall, who leads The Walker School in Marietta, is “hopeful” about opening next month and said the school’s size and their planning “ensures our families do not have to compromise either the safety of their child or the quality of their child’s education.”

Students wearing face masks sit at their desks keeping social distance, ahead of a selectivity exam at the Autonomous University of Barcelona on Tuesday, July 7, 2020 in Sabadell, outside Barcelona, Spain. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

Credit: Emilio Morenatti

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Credit: Emilio Morenatti

Like Westminster, Hall’s school is still planning to open Aug. 13. The school worked with public health officials to develop safety plans, with one-way hallways, upgrades to the air-handling system and the purchase of portable electrostatic sprayers that can disinfect even under the furniture, spokeswoman Karen Park said.

“We’ve spent an incredible amount of time ... to try to reduce the risk,” Park said. Both the school and public health officials are wary of the rising infection rate in Cobb.

Not everyone is ready to go back.

“I’m incredibly terrified,” said David Adkins, 16, a rising junior at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School in Sandy Springs. A beloved coach there, Ron Hill, died last spring with COVID-19.

“It’s not so much for my safety,” David said. “I’m worried for my parents and for staff members.”

There is pressure to open from experts, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, who say in-person schooling is essential for social and emotional development, especially among younger children in poverty.

Private schools tend to have fewer poor students given the cost of tuition, are likely in a better position to bring their students back since they can invest in upgrades that may be beyond the reach of many public schools. Mount Paran Christian School in Kennesaw, for instance, is installing a microbial air filtration system to combat the virus, which many scientists believe to be airborne. It plans to open Aug. 11.

With its ample grounds — the school sits on 68 acres — it has plenty of room to set up a large tent for an outside dining hall, said Tiffany Westbrook, the school’s spokeswoman. And social distancing won’t pose much of a problem indoors, with average class sizes of 12 students per teacher.

“Our class sizes are so small already that we can pretty much do it without modifications,” she said.

Planned opening dates for in-person instruction (as of this week)

Atlanta International School - Aug. 18

Cliff Valley School in Atlanta - Aug. 17

Darlington School in Rome - Aug. 17

Greater Atlanta Christian School - Aug. 10 (with a daily option for students to attend online)

Heritage Christian Academy in Brunswick - Aug. 10

King’s Ridge Christian School in Alpharetta - Aug 12

Marist School in Atlanta - undecided

Mount Paran Christian School in Kennesaw - Aug. 11

Mount Pisgah Christian School in Johns Creek - Aug. 12

North Cobb Christian School in Kennesaw - Aug. 10 and 11 (with a continuous virtual learning option)

The Howard School in Atlanta - Aug. 17

The Lovett School in Atlanta - Aug. 13

The Schenck School in Atlanta - Aug. 12

The Walker School in Marietta - Aug. 13

Westminster in Atlanta - Aug. 13

Woodward Academy in College Park - Aug. 13