The Woodlands area private schools reopen with focus on smaller, in-person classes

Editor's note: The spelling of the name of The John Cooper School's marketing and communications director has been corrected from the print version and additional details have been added to this story about the school's reopening plan.

As public school districts throughout Texas reopen, private schools in The Woodlands area also planned for students’ return to campus in the 2020-21 academic year.

While local districts, including Conroe and Tomball ISDs, pushed the start of in-person learning back to September, officials from several private schools around The Woodlands said the demand for 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.

Conroe ISD estimated its fall enrollment at 66,000, and Tomball and Magnolia ISDs estimated their enrollments would only increase by about 10 students in the fall.

Broader interest in distance learning options is continuing into Conroe ISD’s 2020-21 year, with more than one-third of the district’s enrolled students opting to remain remote as of early September.

The Woodlands area is home to around 30 private schools at various grade levels, excluding facilities that exclusively cater to prekindergartners.

Rebecca Coates, the director of admissions and community relations at The Woodlands Methodist School, said more than 40 children were enrolled this year who had previously attended public schools due to their parents’ desire for in-person education.

“Teachers, staff and students are all excited to be learning and interacting in-person. Our enrollment makes it easier to social distance and to remain safe at school,” Coates said in an email. “Our families have been very vocal in their excitement for their children to return to the classroom.”Coates said planning for the fall semester among its staff has been evolving since the first local COVID-19 cases were identified.

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 campus’s in-person offerings, which began 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.”

Safety first

The Woodlands Prep International School opened for the school year Aug. 17 with a variety of safety measures in place. Social distancing, including a 10-1 student-teacher ratio and a mask-wearing mandate for all students in fourth grade and above, is in effect. The school also developed an online campus with virtual lessons available if in-person classes are interrupted later in the year, said Ángel Rivero-Palomo, the executive director of The Woodlands Prep International School.

“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,” Rivero-Palomo said. “We want to offer a secure and healthy space in which children can feel a sense of normality.”

Julie Ambler, the head of school at The Woodlands Christian Academy, also said families wanted 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,” Ambler said.

Ambler said the school offers its full range of classes this year and will use its 40-acre campus to increase outdoor learning opportunities. 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 in August that the school’s first two weeks of on-campus instruction—the learning option selected by 93% of the academy’s student body—had proven popular. Several of its grade levels had already halted applications after reaching capacity to start the year, she said.

The John Cooper School began Aug. 13 with online learning for middle and upper school students, and both online and in-person learning for lower school students, Marketing and Communications Director Deb Spiess said. Middle and upper school students were able to return to campus Sept. 8.

New protocols at the school include mandatory face coverings for all staff and students in first grade and above, physical distancing and capacity limits, among other measures. The school’s nurses offices were also reconfigured this summer for the separation of sick students, and cleaning throughout the campus will be increased.

Legacy Preparatory Christian Academy is only offering in-person classes, Head Administrator Audra May said.

The school on Research Forest Drive has students attending on alternate days and adjusts its plan according to the governor’s orders. Masks are worn between classes and additional health services staff are on hand, she said.

Enrollment in the school is down about 10 students, but space is limited due to the need for distancing, she said.

By Ben Thompson
Ben joined Community Impact Newspaper in 2019 as a reporter for The Woodlands area and began working as Austin's City Hall reporter in April 2021.
By Andrew Christman
Andrew joined Community Impact Newspaper in early 2019 after moving from Indiana. He is a 2015 graduate from Indiana State University, where he received degrees in English and journalism. He has written for a number of small town publications throughout his career as a reporter.


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