Pre-pandemic, Christy Whipple, head of school at Newport Montessori School in Newport, shook hands with each student as they strolled through the main door of the school each morning. This year, hand-shakes have been swapped for elbow bumps or foot taps; students enter via three different entrances; and Whipple stays out of the way, not wanting to increase student’s exposure or her own.
“Everybody is being more mindful,” Whipple said.
And yet, compared to many public schools, the day is relatively unchanged for students at Newport Montessori. Students are kept in pods, with more barriers between them, but instruction is happening full-time, in person.
When Governor Sununu ordered schools to switch to remote learning on March 13, 2020, Whipple’s first priority was ensuring that the school’s roughly 80 students in preschool through 8th grade could continue learning. She distributed assignments and got teachers up and running with Zoom instruction.
The school operates two preschool classrooms, which could have stayed open as daycare, but when the school polled families, very few were interested in having the youngsters in the building. Since remote learning wasn’t a fit for the preschoolers, Whipple waived tuition for students in those two classrooms, taking a significant hit on revenue.
She knew that for the school to survive, she would need to be able to offer in-person learning in the 2020-2021 school year.
“Parents are not going to pay for remote learning,” Whipple said.
In addition to joining frequent meetings with other state and school officials, Newport Montessori organized its own team to determine how the school could safely reopen. When the school announced their plan, and their intention to open for in-person instruction, the interest from parents was immediate.
“Parents want five-day-a-week in person learning and so as schools began announcing their plans for remote or hybrid our phone was ringing, and people were flooding through our doors in August to get a spot,” Whipple said.
That led to an enrollment increase of 14%, and waitlists for two of the five classrooms in the school. While fluctuations in enrollment are normal, Whipple wasn’t expecting such a jump.
“There was a panic there,” she said.
During the spring, Whipple had to furlough nine staff members. Before the fall she brought them all back and hired an additional position.
Some of the students came from out of state, fleeing Massachusetts, New Jersey or Connecticut to wait out the pandemic at vacation homes in the Sunapee area. Others are former public-school students from Newport or Claremont, whose parents wanted to ensure in-person learning. Whipple expects to see the surge in enrollment last into the 2021-2022 school year, because despite everyone’s wishes, she doesn’t see the pandemic being over before the fall.
Eventually, she expects that some students will re-enroll in public schools, but that other families will want to maintain the student-driven Montessori approach to learning. Whipple says that many families at the school are low- or middle-income, using tuition assistance, grants and family support to pay for school.
The pandemic forced Newport Montessori — like most organizations — to embrace technology in new ways. Last year, the school hosted a virtual science fair, which allowed far-flung friends and loved ones to appreciate students’ work.
“That opened up a bigger audience,” Whipple said, and the school plans to incorporate a virtual aspect to other events.
Technology has also made it easier for students to stay up-to-date with school work when they’re home sick or quarantining, since instruction can be streamed. However, one thing hasn’t changed: snow days.
“People who live in urban areas don’t realize that when it snows in Newport we might not have internet or cell service,” Whipple said.
To facilitate remote instruction when necessary, the school purchased additional laptops and tablets for students. At the time, the purchase was made out of the school’s operating budget in order to get devices to students quickly. Now, Whipple is working to access CARES funding earmarked for expenses like that.
Keeping up with all the assistance and grants that are meant to support nonprofits like Newport Montessori during the pandemic has been a challenge.
“Schools are unique,” Whipple said. “We’re a business, but we’re not. Some [assistance] applies, some doesn’t. It takes a lot more work administratively. Finding the time to do that has been difficult, while maintaining the quality of education in the school.”
No matter what the next year brings for enrollment, Whipple is ready to see Newport Montessori meet the community’s demand.
“We’re like the goldfish in the bowl… we can grow to size,” she said.
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