Robust Season Ahead

Jana F. Brown
Families turn to boarding schools in the midst of COVID-19.
With COVID-19 has come uncertainty about nearly everything the world defines as “normal.” Perhaps what people crave most is consistency in some area of life. Educational institutions are not immune to the impact of the pandemic; however, it seems that now more than ever, families are turning to boarding schools to find that consistency.

According to SPS Dean of Admission Scott Bohan ’94, the number of applications that have been initiated to St. Paul’s School and the other 55 member schools of the Gateway to Prep Schools common application rose from 2,600 at the end of July 2019 to 4,500 at the same time in 2020. For St. Paul’s, Bohan points to three factors that are gaining additional notice in a traditionally robust admission process: location, size, and programs.

 “In talking with other schools, they are seeing similar interest,” says Bohan, who serves as president of Gateway. “For St. Paul’s specifically, multiple factors come together for us. We are based in New Hampshire, where virus numbers are relatively low. We have a 2,000-acre campus and can create even more spaces for kids to gather and learn safely. We can safely hold in-person classes, sports, and community events that kids are craving – they will be able to do it all here.”

In March, when it became clear that a return to campus amid the virus surge would not be possible, the School was able to pivot quickly to distance learning platforms. SPS faculty dedicated significant effort toward modifying their spring course plans and offering extended office hours to ensure students were not left out because of geography or access. Classes settled in at a comfortable balance of synchronous and asynchronous time, and St. Paul’s provided a consistent educational environment that also appeals to prospective families, particularly those concerned that their school districts may opt indefinitely for remote learning.

An August 27 article in U.S. News (“Big City Schools Are Less Likely to Reopen for In-Person Instruction”) reported that, “While nearly half, or 49%, of school districts plan to open for in-person classes this fall, there is a major urban-rural divide. Across the U.S., one in four school districts plan to reopen entirely remotely, but four in five urban school districts are set to [do the same], making them twice as likely as suburban districts and six times as likely as rural districts to do so. The analysis of school district plans shows that nearly 80% of urban school districts will be remote only, compared to 34% of suburban districts and 13% of rural districts.”
“Even when we moved to the distance learning model,” notes Bohan, “we did it well. As some families are facing the reality of going back to big cities in big school districts, we have seen a huge surge in interest.”

The surge not only includes applicants for 2021-22 but families seeking spots at St. Paul’s for fall 2020. “Our phones have been busier than ever this summer,” adds Bohan, noting no such spots are available. 

To accommodate the additional interest in the School (interviews this summer are also outpacing last year’s number), St. Paul’s has set in motion a plan that was in the works prior to the pandemic, adding two remote admission officers to the staff. SPS parent and educational expert Fawn Boone P’21,’23 has been hired to meet a growing need for a dedicated liaison in New York and New Jersey, while Enrique Granados ’12 will serve as a traveling admission officer with a mission of developing and maintaining SPS relationships in locations across the country.

To make the admission process as inclusive as possible, St. Paul’s has deemed standardized testing optional for 2020-21 applicants and has waived the application fee. Both decisions were made to ensure equity. In the case of the SSAT, the move was made for students who might not have access to a quiet space or reliable technology for at-home testing. The application fee was waived so that it would not create a financial barrier for those interested in applying.

Opportunities to engage in the SPS community from a distance also have been enhanced for prospective students, including a detailed virtual tour narrated by a student guide and a series of webinars that introduce families to independent school admissions and escorts them through the application process. The first SPS “Admission 101” webinar, hosted by Bohan, drew more than 200 participants. An additional 1,500 people attended a webinar for the Ten Schools Admissions Organization (TSAO).

While it’s a challenge to duplicate from a distance the experience families have when they walk onto campus, prospective students can get an inside glimpse at the SPS community through the virtual tour and also take advantage of chances to interact with Student Admission Officers and other student ambassadors through a chat option added to the School website.

“What we’re finding,” says Bohan, “is that people anywhere can access these virtual opportunities. We’re getting the information to more families than we might have if we were relying solely on them visiting campus.”

The thoughtful nature of SPS planning is also appealing to prospective families as they navigate an uncertain educational future worldwide. Pandemic-based modifications to the daily schedule, spearheaded by Dean of Studies Lori Bohan, include prioritized daily classroom time between 8:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.; moving Chapel after classes twice a week; installation of 360-degree cameras in classrooms to improve access for students who elect or are forced into a continuation of remote learning; de-densification of mealtimes and athletic practices; and the addition of weekly adviser meetings.

The plan for the fall of 2020 is to bring students back to campus, following the latest guidance from the CDC and other health officials, and then work to maintain safety protocols. Those include testing, distancing, hygiene, masks, and avoiding large gatherings. For families, it appears that the concept of learning in a boarding school “bubble” is more appealing than ever.

“I’m not sure how many applications we will see,” says Scott Bohan. “If the trend of July continues, the increase will be pretty significant. Some of it will depend on the anxiety of families as their schools reopen or remain online. No matter what, St. Paul’s will be able to offer a good option for families.”

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