Walter Adams and Luna Van Deusen volunteered at the Lake Champlain Waldorf School, building outdoor classrooms so students can safely social distance while learning.Photo by Jen Zahorchak

Walter Adams and Luna Van Deusen volunteered at the Lake Champlain Waldorf School, building outdoor classrooms so students can safely social distance while learning. Photo by Jen Zahorchak.

By Chea Waters Evans, News editor

In person? Remote learning? Hybrid model? With a month left until the beginning of the school year and constanly changing information about the coronavirus pandemic and the best and safest way to open public schools in the fall, some parents are turning to area independent schools for their children’s educations for the 2020-2021 school year.

The Champlain Valley School District is using a hybrid model to start the school year; Superintendent Elaine Pinckney said that the schedule could always change later in the school year, but that for at least the first six weeks the hybrid model is her recommendation. This means that most students in the K-8 Charlotte Central School classrooms will attend school in person two days a week. For many parents, particularly those with younger children, this scheduling option presents a childcare challenge. That’s where private schools come in.

Vermont Day School (VDS) in Shelburne plans to open for in-person instruction five days a week when the school year begins, with a contingency plan in place should the need arise for online learning. For working parents, this schedule eliminates the problem of finding childcare that would include an academic proponent for three weekdays. Head of School Sage Bagnato said that since the public school district announced the hybrid schedule, she had a surge of requests for tours and applications.

“A lot of people are looking at what their options are—knowing what their current public schools are planning, they’re looking into alternative options,” she said. She said that size is a helpful factor in planning and that she is sympathetic to the public school’s struggles; enrollment at VDS is around 65 students. “So much of it is inherently our smaller size—it’s easier to think about opening when it’s 60 students as opposed to 400.” Though there is much more interest from the community, she said that social distancing and safety protocols mean that enrollment will remain similar to years past. The K-8 school is limiting class sizes, which are typically 12 to 16 students, to 10 per classroom.

Aside from the now-normal protocols of mask wearing, disinfecting regularly, frequent handwashing, and maintaining proper physical distance, Bagnato said VDS faces a particularly challenging academic situation. “We do a lot of collaborative, hands-on learning, so at the moment one of the hardest elements is how to create that work when we need to be physically distant,” she said. “It’s challenging to think about situations when they need to be close to each other, or even when a child is upset and needs reassurance. I can’t imagine having to console a child from six feet away.”

The Lake Champlain Waldorf School (LCWS) in Shelburne, which has students from preschool to high school, is not only shifting their perspectives on teaching and curriculum, they’re actually shifting the students outdoors. Along with LCWS staff and teachers, parents and students volunteered this summer to build outdoor classrooms on the school’s 20-plus acre campus. A combination of canvas tents, hammock chairs strung between trees, heated seats, and even an amphitheater, the classrooms were designed to be movable to lessen environmental impact and to allow for different kinds of outdoor learning five days a week.

Head of School Jas Darland said that four classrooms will be finished by the beginning of the school year and two others will be completed by students once the school year begins. There will also be smaller canopy tents and camp chairs so teachers can easily move kids indoors if need be. “My goal is that in the pleasant, mild months a teacher and a class can spend the entire day outside,” Darland said, “and that in the difficult months, teachers will feel comfortable and confident spending 30 percent of the day outside.” Portable heaters and staggering outdoor class periods with indoor work will help keep students thawed in the winter.

Within that framework, Waldorf students also have an option to take a parallel learning course that is all online or take advantage of the option to attend school for the outdoor portion of the day and return home for online learning once their class heads inside.

Darland said she and the school are empathetic to the equity issue between students whose parents can afford an independent school’s tuition and those who must attend public school for financial reasons. She said that close to 60 percent of students at LCWS receive financial aid, and that she is looking into other options to help finance more scholarships. She said she and the school’s teachers are grateful for the ability to make curriculum and facilities adjustments independently. “I’m not looking to capitalize on the public school’s misfortune, and I feel so sorry for people who are trying to solve this difficult problem without flexibility,” she said.

Though enrollment inquiries are higher this year, Darland said there are already wait lists for some grades. She anticipates that, because of social distancing requirements, the school will be full at 150 students, though in a normal year they have the capacity for 300, with student enrollment typically closer to 200.

On the other end of the spectrum, students at Vermont Commons School (VCS) in South Burlington will be online at home four days a week and outdoors together one day of the week. Head of School Dexter Mahaffey said that because VCS students are in middle and high school and don’t necessarily need adult supervision all day, the childcare issue faced by families with younger children isn’t as much of an issue. Finances are still a necessity for a private school education, however.

“Socioeconomic diversity is a huge portion of our school’s mission since its foundation,” he said. “Our financial aid is always in a percentage of our overall budget, and this year we did a huge fundraising campaign in early June to add to that” in order to help families who might have taken a hit to their incomes.

Academically, the college preparatory aspect of the school remains the same, Mahaffey said. He said that the online curriculum planned for the fall is much different from the work students did this past spring; he said the VCS staff has been working all summer to find interactive ways to engage students from afar. He also pointed out that when they’re at home on a screen, students and teachers will be able to see each other’s faces because they’re not wearing masks during work time, and the rest of the community connection will come in person. “We’re going to hit our academics hard for three days, but on Wednesday we’re out in the world in small groups doing outdoor experiential education.”

Despite the challenges presented by the school year, Mahaffey said he is looking forward to the coming school year. “Educators love working with kids; we love doing what we do, so a vision of anything of being able to do that, whatever it is, that’s what gets us excited. If you have the privilege of working around kids all day long, you get to believe in a future of growth and cheerfulness.”