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N.H.'s Private Schools See Uptick In Interest During Pandemic

Sarah Gibson for NHPR

The coronavirus pandemic is creating major problems in public schools in New Hampshire. But the picture for private schools is different.

Most independent schools are reopening in person, and as NHPR’s Sarah Gibson reports, interest in some of them is higher than ever. 

At Building Block Commons, a private school in Exeter, farm animals are a major part of the morning routine. Goats and chickens greet students on the two-acre campus, which has a field, gardens, large tents, and access to the woods.

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“We’ve always been half our day outdoors - that’s always been our goal and commitment. This year, however, we’re even more committed to it,” says director Wren Hayes, sporting a t-shirt with a picture of a tent and the words ‘Recharging Station.”

This school is built for a pandemic. 100 students are divided into socially-distanced cohorts of ten; teachers will wear masks, face shields, and use personal amplification systems to ensure students hear them; inside, classes have about $140,000 of upgrades inside to ensure good air flow and hygiene.

These are the kind of assurances that many teachers and families want before heading back to school. And with more space, a smaller student population, and fewer decision-makers, private schools can do this more easily than most public schools.

Credit Courtesy of Wren Hayes
Wren Hayes with her COVID-19 teaching outfit, including an amplification system. Hayes says private schools can flourish during the pandemic but are spending big to reopen safely.

As a result, interest in many New Hampshire independent schools has increased during the pandemic, particularly in areas where public schools are opting for remote or hybrid models.

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Boarding schools are also reporting more last-minute inquiries from families in New Hampshire and other states, while interest from international students declines.

Building Block Commons - located in an SAU that is staying remote - typically has a waitlist of 70; this year it’s double that.

“There’s desperation,” Hayes says of families in the area. “You just hear it, because you get repeat phone calls.”

Hayes has had someone on the waitlist offer to double their tuition to get a spot in class. She didn’t accept the offer, but she says it’s indicative of the anxiety for parents juggling their jobs with overseeing remote learning.

One parent who got a spot at Building Block Commons early on is Chris Yonker. He and his wife considered starting their daughter in public school but grew concerned in the spring.

“As soon as we realized in April and May that the virus isn’t gonna go away, it’s going to be here in the fall, the public systems - they don’t have it together now...I just didn’t see they were going to have it together the way we want to be part of,” Yonker says.

The Yonkers say even if the school has to go virtual because of an outbreak, starting off school in-person will make a world of difference for their daughter.

Catholic Schools have jumped at the opportunity to recruit more families during the pandemic. With big, underutilized classrooms and years of declining enrollment, many of these schools say they're poised to reopen with more students.

This summer, Alison Mueller, the director of marketing, enrollment, and development for the Catholic Schools Office of the Manchester Diocese, launched a campaign to offer tuition discounts to students transferring from a non-Catholic school.

“Every family was talking about schools in a way that they never have before, and so we wanted to be part of that,” Mueller says.

Credit From the website
The Manchester Diocese is recruiting more families during the pandemic with a Transfer Incentive Program.

The Transfer Incentive Program (TIP) offers $1,500 off the first two years of tuition for grades 1-8 and $3,000 off the first two years for high school.

And the incentives are paying off. Some Catholic schools have seen enrollment increase by 10 percent; others have longer-than-ever waitlists. 

TIP - combined with financial aid and a recent boost in state scholarships for private schools - make these schools more accessible to low-income families, but many families say they're still going to stick with public school.

Kile Adumene, a Nigerian-American activist in Manchester who has advocated for improvements to her children’s public schools for years, says the private option won’t work for her or many others with health concerns and limited resources.

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The Diocesean guidelines for masks and social distancing in the local Catholic schools are less restrictive than what many public schools are aiming for, and Adumene, a nurse, worries about COVID-19 exposure there.

"The private schools where kids go home and come back, and you don't know where they go and who they've been exposed to, doesn't give me any guarantee that there aren't going to be any outbreaks," she says.

But Adumene says navigating pandemic education as a single mom won't be easy.

“Those who have money and those with two parents; one parent can stay home to check in and make sure things is running fine. There’s money to pay for the services they want,” she says. “But those that don’t have that privilege continue to fall behind and suffer and are just left for the crumbs that fall off other people.”

Adumene says she hopes the families who stay in public school during the pandemic get just as much support to learn as others will likely get in private school.

Sarah Gibson joined NHPR's newsroom in 2018. She reports on education and demographics.
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