Ready for the ‘Next Normal’

Independent schools are moving ahead with full in-person plans for fall

| 14 Aug 2021 | 10:48

After an upbeat spring buoyed by the promise of a widely vaccinated population and return to pre-pandemic activities, the recent stubborn rise in new coronavirus cases from the Delta variant, reluctant vaccine-takers, and possibly an over-enthusiastic summer of bonding, has led to dampened expectations for a quick recovery as fall rolls around.

Still, with the availability of the vaccine, school districts are forging ahead with plans for a relatively normal school year come September. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said that New York City children will return to school full-time and in-person with no remote option. Independent schools have a similar plan.

While an average of about 85 percent of private-school students attended some in-person classes in the spring, this school year administrators look forward to welcoming their full student body back - plus vaccines, minus the hybrid.

At the Browning School for boys on the Upper East Side, the school community is coming back together in more ways than one. After securing space at a nearby building to house their fourth and fifth graders to allow for appropriate social distancing at the height of the pandemic, all the students will now return to their original building.

“We will open with all students in our 62nd Street school building,” said Jan Abernathy, Browning’s Chief Communications Officer. “We are no longer going to have overflow space at the French Institute.” Additionally, their new vaccine policy will go into effect.

“Everyone 12 [years and older] must be vaccinated and we will test students right before the first day of school,” she said.

Testing day is September 8, with classes starting on September 9. This is toward their goal of having every child in school every day as they do away with online options and “pods” and cohorts teaching arrangements which dominated the first pandemic year.

Abernathy echoed what several heads of schools shared in the spring about the critical role the dedication of “amazing faculty and staff” played in keeping students safe and learning.

“Once we realized - pretty early on - that we might be operating in this “next normal” for a while, they were rolling up their sleeves to meet the challenge,” she said. The next normal is still evolving at Browning, where they will share new safety measures in coming weeks.

Rigorous Health Protocols

Doug Knecht, Head of School at the Bank Street School for Children, confirmed that the school will also follow a full in-person schedule in September. The School for Children is an independent, coeducational preschool through 8th grade school on the Upper West Side.

Asked whether there were parents concerned about sending students to classes full time, Knecht explained that their success from the implementation of rigorous health protocols during the last school year has alleviated that concern.

“Last year, we implemented robust health and safety measures that enabled us to remain in-person for over 85% of the school year and worked closely with parents throughout the year to address concerns. We are planning to implement similar measures at the start of this year,” he said.

The safety precautions, in varying measure, look a lot like those followed by so many private schools throughout the last year. With variants running havoc in seeming random pockets throughout the city and nation, the ongoing diligence is understandable.

“We will be requiring masks for everyone two years old and up. In order to maintain appropriate physical distancing, we are limiting class sizes to allow for 3-6 feet of social distancing, with the maximum number of students in a given group determined by how many students are able to safely be together in their assigned room,” Knecht said.

All faculty and staff are required to be fully vaccinated (or have an exemption) while the school works with families to ensure that students ages 12 and over are vaccinated as well.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) along with state and city agencies and health experts, continue put out updates on how to keep living (vaccines and more vaccines), even thriving, as we enter year two of a persistent contagion. Abernathy of the Browning School goes a step further.

“Perhaps the most important thing that we have continued to learn is how much our emphasis on relationships and on social emotional learning is crucial in trying times such as these,” she said. “It is those things that have positioned us well to meet ongoing challenges that no doubt lie ahead.”