While local districts including Conroe and Tomball ISDs opted to push the start of in-person learning back to September, several private schools around The Woodlands said the demand for and benefits of on-campus instruction prompted their decisions to offer traditional classes from the start of the school year—with new safety precautions related to COVID-19 in place.
"After implementing online learning for so long, we believe that this unprecedented situation must have taken a toll on the psychological and social development of students. Here at Woodlands Prep we want to offer a secure and healthy space in which children can feel a sense of normality," said Ángel Rivero-Palomo, the executive director of The Woodlands Preparatory School, in an email.
The Woodlands Preparatory School, located at 27440 Kuykendahl Road, will reopen for the new school year Aug. 17 with a variety of safety measures in place for students and staff. Social distancing, including a 10-1 student-teacher ratio and a mask-wearing mandate for all students in fourth grade and above, will be in effect, along with temperature screenings and antibacterial hand sanitizer at building entrances. The school also developed an online campus with virtual lessons available in the event government orders shutter in-person class later in the year, Rivero-Palomo said.
Julie Ambler, head of school at The Woodlands Christian Academy, also said the response she received from families in the school community pointed to a desire for on-campus learning to resume for the academy's 2020-21 year beginning Aug. 12.
"Our parents have overwhelmingly stated their desire for their children to return to on-campus learning. We are doing everything we can to offer our students a safe environment where they can thrive and grow—spiritually, academically, physically and socially," Ambler said in an email.
Ambler said the school plans to offer its full range of classes this year and will utilize its 40-acre campus at 5800 Academy Way to increase distanced, outdoor learning opportunities as well. New safety protocols in place for the coming school year include mandatory mask-wearing, reconfigured classroom spaces and movement between classrooms, and staggered start times. Ambler said the school also invested in new purifying filters for its campus heating, ventilation and air conditioning units and an expanded nurses clinic to enhance on-campus safety.
The John Cooper School at 1 John Cooper Drive is expecting to begin its school year Aug. 13 with a temporary online learning plan for middle and upper school students that could conclude before Labor Day, Marketing and Communications Director Deb Speiss said. Lower-school students are expected to begin the year on campus, Speiss said, although online options will be available for those grades as well.
New protocols at the school include mandatory face coverings for all staff and students in first grade and above, physical distancing measures and capacity limits. The school's nurses offices were also reconfigured this summer for the separation of sick students, and cleaning and disinfecting throughout the campus will be increased.
Rebecca Coates, director of admissions and community relations at The Woodlands Methodist School, said planning for the fall semester among staff—including its two nurses—has been evolving since the first local COVID-19 cases were identified earlier this year. For enhanced social distancing, lower and middle school students at the school's 1915 Lake Front Circle campus will be grouped into cohort groups that attend classes and activities together throughout each school day.
Coates said the cohort system will allow for the targeted quarantine of groups and a temporary shift to online learning if any students test positive for COVID-19 without requiring larger portions of the student body or the whole school to shut down if positive cases are identified. Additional measures such as entry screenings and mandatory mask-wearing for all staff and students in fourth grade and above will also be in place.
Families of lower and middle school students may also opt into online-only instruction for each grading period of the year if they desire, and Coates said the school also has plans in place in case future government orders do require school closures. However, she said the campus's in-person offerings set to begin Aug. 19 have proven attractive with the majority of enrolled families.
"Some of the families reaching out to me are working outside the home, and distance learning is just not an option for them," Coates said. "Knowing that we can provide that, at least right now, is something that’s very interesting to them. And we just want the kids to be around other kids. Socially, they really are just missing that. I think our kids are having a hard time with that.”
Andrew Christman contributed to this report.