Public and Private Schools Adjust to Cornovirus, Plan for Summer and Fall

Less than a month ago, for schools across Connecticut, it was business as usual… planning for Spring Break, gearing up for sports tournaments, rehearsing plays and musicals and — on the horizon — graduation.

“On March 4, I gathered the faculty together and said this COVID situation doesn’t look like it’s slowing down. We may need to, at some point in the fourth quarter, have some sort of distance learning,” said Mark Fader, the Head of School at Williams School in New London. “I finished the meeting by saying I’m preparing you for something that in all likelihood won’t happen.”

Three weeks later, every school in the state had closed and instruction — as much as possible — had shifted to remote and online learning.

The distance learning experience

In contrast to public elementary and high school education, private schools, colleges and universities have been able to transition to online learning, somewhat, seamlessly.

“We are not scaling down or slowing down at all,” said Jeff Strabone, associate professor of English at Connecticut College. “Class is held at the usual time and I actually think people are even more invested in the class now because all the lessons in the first half of the semester are becoming very real.”

Strabone has the added benefit of teaching a class focused on media, communications, rhetoric and bias – but even for other courses, maintaining defined class times, incorporating class discussion and independent work has helped faculty from Connecticut College to Williams School to Wesleyan University stay on track to meet educational goals for the semester.

“We are not scaling down or slowing down at all,” said Jeff Strabone, associate professor of English at Connecticut College. “Class is held at the usual time and I actually think people are even more invested in the class now because all the lessons in the first half of the semester are becoming very real.”

“Wesleyan is committed to completing all courses being offered this semester so students can earn full credit,” said Lauren Rubenstein, director of media and public relations at Wesleyan. “Some courses, such as lab or performing art courses, have been adapted to make online delivery possible. Our faculty have been working hard to find creative solutions in order to deliver their course material most effectively.”

The University of Connecticut, on the other hand, is offering every enrolled student the option of pass/fail for courses at no additional cost or penalty.

At Williams, Fader said, the greatest loss for students is not the educational offerings which have continued as usual from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day, but the social interaction.

“Kids miss their friends so we have been working on how to build in that social aspect,” he said. “We have a really strong arts and athletic program. Our Spring Musical is Pippin, so our directors of theater and music are still holding their rehearsals. They are done via zoom and the students are at home, but it still allows them to practice, interact and perform.”

Fader said athletic coaches are checking in with all their athletes and continuing to provide workouts and training.

“On Monday I met with all the seniors virtually and asked them how we can do prom without gathering. I asked them to come up with good ideas and we will figure out the best possible solution,” Fader said.

Whether it’s in the high school setting or college, the hardest group hit according to every school, is the senior class.

“No one deserves having to spend the last quarter not celebrating their college acceptances, doing the musical or captaining lacrosse or sailing,” Fader said.

Courses and some extracurricular activities may continue virtually, but at UConn and Wesleyan, all students studying abroad have been brought home and their programs ended and research has come to an abrupt halt.

“All on-campus research activities at all UConn locations, including UConn Health, has stopped and labs have closed until further notice,” according to UConn’s latest COVID-19 update.

The financial impact

It’s not just students that will feel long lasting effects from an exteneded shutdown. Most colleges and universities with boarding students are struggling to decide how they will weather the financial impacts.

“This is an evolving situation so the exact financial impact is not yet known,” Rubstein said of Wesleyan. “But it will clearly be substantial.”

Wesleyan and the University of Connecticut, like many other institutions, chose to refund room and board for the second half of the spring semester. At UConn, the refunds amount to about $32 million in addition to an estimated $6.7 million in lost revenue from canceled events.

The CARES Act, passed by the Congress, designates about $43.7 billion in aid for educational institutions.

Wesleyan and the University of Connecticut, like many other institutions, chose to refund room and board for the second half of the spring semester. At UConn, the refunds amount to about $32 million in addition to an estimated $6.7 million in lost revenue from canceled events.

“The Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities analyzed the bill and its potential effects on its member institutions, and estimates UConn will receive about $10.08 million in institutional aid,” said Stephanie Reitz, spokesperson for the university.

Williams, and other day schools, however will likely pull through without substantial financial impacts, Fader said, because there are no necessary refunds.

Planning for the summer and fall

For now, most universities and colleges, including Wesleyan, have already moved their summer programming and courses online, but the fall semester remains a question.

“Like other institutions, we hope and expect to be able to start the fall semester under regular operations, but would pivot quickly before that if pandemic conditions don’t ease before that time,” Reitz said of UConn.

“We are proceeding with admitting an incoming class for the next academic year, and acceptance letters went out last week! We know this is a very challenging time for many families, so we are trying to offer flexibility to make this process as easy as possible,” Rubenstein said of Wesleyan.

There is no clear deadline for when a decision will be made at any school, but for students looking at attending private school or college in the fall, the choice is going to be a lot harder this year.

“We are proceeding with admitting an incoming class for the next academic year, and acceptance letters went out last week! We know this is a very challenging time for many families, so we are trying to offer flexibility to make this process as easy as possible,” Rubenstein said of Wesleyan.

At Williams they are attempting to ease the decision by continuing to offer open houses and tours, but virtually instead of the typical in-person experience. In fact, the success Williams has had at pivoting to virtual education, may actually help them recruit for the fall.

“Things are going really, really well for our current students and we hope that can resound in more students considering Williams,” said Faber. “We have some more flexibility than public schools and are truly serving every one of our students.”