Small schools promise in-person classes

Justin Murphy, Jeff Platsky, John Christensen
Rochester Democrat & Chronicle/Chronicle-Express

Most school districts in New York are planning to open in September with some version of a hybrid model, with a few days of in-person instruction each week and the rest online.

Small private and parochial schools like St. Michael’s on Keuka St. in Penn Yan, may have a better chance of managing COVID-19 precautions when they reopen this fall.

Teachers and many parents have warned that returning to school is a health risk and have called for entirely remote instruction. On the other end of the spectrum are parents who want five days a week of in-person instruction for their children.

Those parents can find willing partners in the many small non-public schools that exist throughout the state — if there’s still any room for them.

Private religious and secular schools, many of them serving just a few dozen students in highly intimate settings, often face a daunting challenge in retaining enough enrolled students to stay open under normal circumstances.

During the coronavirus pandemic, however, their small size has been a virtue.

Debra Marvin, Principal of St. Michael’s School in Penn Yan, has published their reopening plan, stating, “In every decision made throughout the planning process, the health and safety of our students, families, and staff will be our primary focus. This reopening plan has been developed using the most recent guidance for safely reopening schools in Fall 2020. This plan will be regularly updated as more information and guidance become available.”

St. Michael’s has a total student population of less than 100 students. “This provides opportunities to return to in-person with manageable scheduling, transitioning, and use of space,” states Marvin in the plan. 

St. Michael’s 23-page plan was developed after building inspections were completed and with information on needs assessment from families given in a voluntary survey by the Diocese of Rochester. “Parents and staff have also provided insight during the process. The plan was then reviewed by staff at the Diocese of Rochester, as well as a committee of parents, teachers, staff, building and grounds personnel, finance, and the Parish priest,” according to Marvin.

The committee included: Marvin, Father Leo Rhinehardt, Finance Manager Gary Pierce, Parish Building and Grounds supervisor Bonnie Basler, Teacher Keith Prather, and parents, Caroline Boutard-Hunt (Educator for Cornell Cooperative Education), Rachel Robak (paralegal at Alexander & Co.) and Dr. Robert Anderson (Physician at Pre-Emption Family Medicine). 

Jennifer Kremer, principal of the 80-student Nativity Preparatory Academy in Rochester, said, “We have the best ideal situation for the least ideal life situation right now,” “We can do what other schools can’t just by the nature of our student body, our larger, older building and the staff we have.”

Kremer said Nativity has been receiving calls every day from parents anxious to secure in-person education for their children. It has started a waiting list for them. So, too, has St. Mary’s School in Canandaigua.

“The response has been very, very positive,” said Lisa Milano, principal at St. Mary’s. “People are looking for face-to-face instruction. They’re looking for schedules that meet their needs because they have to work.”

Still need to have plans approved

Just like public schools, non-public schools must have their plans approved by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. They have the same requirements in making sure there is enough space for social distancing, enough cleaning and a plan for pivoting to online learning if necessary.

Rabbi Moshe Shmaryahu of Hillel Academy in the Binghamton area said he has received a great deal of interest, but no enrollments yet. Last year it had 19 students in grades K-5.

“We’re preparing the school to meet all the requirements,” he said. “People have been approaching us; I hope some join us.”

Private schools led the way in ramping up their online education last spring, motivated by a need to prove their worth to tuition-paying families.

Their ability to open fully this fall is valuable for the same reason, but has more to do with enrollment and building space.

“We’re all getting phone calls every day to see if we have room,” Kremer said. “We all have huge buildings and low student population, and we’ve made all the accommodations we possibly can.