Frustrated by last-minute school changes and dissatisfied with virtual-learning options, many South Carolina families have opted to leave the public school system entirely.
Some parents have pursued home schooling. Others have turned to "pandemic pods" or small-group tutoring.
But as the coronavirus pandemic threatens to stretch well into the spring, more families are seeking out private or independent schools that are fully in-person rather than remote.
The situation in the Palmetto State parallels a national trend, in which affluent families flock to private schools offering face-to-face instruction during the pandemic — even though it often comes with a hefty price tag.
Some advocates fear the shift to private schools, if it continues, could lead to a decline in per-pupil school budget allocations and further the achievement gap between impoverished students and their peers.
Overall, private school enrollment across the state is up by an estimated 2 percent to 3 percent this year, which defied experts’ early predictions of widespread enrollment shortfalls, said Spencer Jordan, executive director of the S.C. Independent School Association.
Meanwhile, headcounts from Palmetto State public schools are down by 1.4 percent, according to S.C. Department of Education data obtained by Chalkbeat and The Associated Press.
“My assumption here is that parents needed to be able to go back to work and they needed the security of their children being in school,” Jordan said. “I think you couple that with the overriding feeling that children were missing out on a quality education, which can only be offered through in-person instruction.”
The state health agency doesn't publicly differentiate between public and private schools in its total tallies of coronavirus cases associated with staff and students. But Jordan and a half dozen independent school leaders contacted by The Post and Courier maintained that despite their more aggressive approach to reopening face-to-face, COVID-19 cases in the classroom have remained low.
Only 22 percent of South Carolina school districts started the school year with full-time, face-to-face learning.
But nearly all members of the S.C. Independent School Association hosted in-person learning this fall, Jordan said. Of the organization's 135 member schools, 134 offered students the chance to come back to the classroom.
All but one of the 32 religious schools overseen by the Catholic Diocese of Charleston also started the school year with full-time, in-person instruction, according to spokeswoman Maria Aselage.
A handful of private schools have since shifted to temporary virtual instruction this month in order to mitigate a post-holiday surge in virus activity, but many have since returned to fully in-person learning or plan to do so in the coming weeks.
Still, private and independent schools' reopening plans have caught the attention of Gov. Henry McMaster, who has repeatedly pointed to private and independent schools' reopening models in an attempt to pressure public districts to offer in-person learning.
Most recently, the governor encouraged lawmakers to draft legislation that will require "unwilling school districts to reopen their classrooms" during his State of the State address Wednesday night.
One school, Hampton Park Christian in Greenville County, featured heavily in McMaster's pitch in July to allocate federal coronavirus relief funds for tuition grants to low- and middle-income families wanting to send their children to private schools.
At the time, McMaster said the grants, which ultimately failed under state Supreme Court review, were not contingent upon a private school offering in-person instruction. But during the governor's news conference announcing the grants, Hampton Park Christian school leaders explained how they could bring students back to the classroom safely.
McMaster just days before had admonished public school districts that weren't opening five days a week.
Greenville County Schools was one of those, opting instead for a hybrid schedule that had children in schools one day a week. The public schools in Greenville later increased it to two. Currently, aided by plexiglass dividers, elementary and middle-school students are at full attendance, five days a week, minus roughly 16,000 kids who are in the district's virtual academy.
Class sizes that in the past have pushed 30 students had to be reduced to 25 to make the plexiglass strategy work at full enrollment.
"We feel for them," said Daniel Nelson, the administrator at Bob Jones Academy. "It's such a challenge with so many more students."
Public high school students in Greenville are attending classes two days a week in person but will increase to 75 percent attendance after MLK Day. Plexiglass dividers were installed this past week.
Unencumbered by the bureaucratic oversight accompanied with the state's public institutions, many private and independent schools faced fewer structural hurdles to clear before reopening.
“I can’t imagine the enormous task that a superintendent of schools or a principal of a public school has to have when making a decision. There’s just a lot more steps involved,” said Tim Spurrier, head of school at Mason Preparatory Academy.
The independent school located off Lockwood Drive in downtown Charleston saw nearly 30 more students enrolled this year than initial projections, several of whom were previously enrolled in nearby public schools.
It’s a similar story at Porter-Gaud, a private, West Ashley Episcopal school.
Overall, enrollment has maintained relatively steady, said Head of School DuBose Egleston, but this year the school has seen the addition of several public school families who “were not happy with what their options were.”
This increased interest in private schools across South Carolina mirrors national trends.
Private schools in several states have seen applications surge, according to The New York Times. In August, the National Association of Independent Schools reported that 58 percent of its schools had noted an increase in interest from the previous summer.
In Horry County, St. Andrew Catholic School in Myrtle Beach benefited from the increased flexibility afforded to small, independent schools.
The school decided to offer three modes of education for parents and students to choose from. Students can choose to attend in-person classes five days a week, to work from home through a homeschooling program that uses their curriculum, or to come into the school but stay in their own room and Zoom into class.
Students can switch between their preferred modes, working from home some weeks and in-person others.
Vice Principal Cheryl Sedota said enrollment inquiries from parents whose kids go to public school are up, and she said she believes it's because St. Andrew is being safe while also making sure students have vital interactions with their peers and teachers.
“Parents are not certified teachers. My heart went out last year when we were trying to do all this education virtual. It's tough on everyone, it's tough on teachers, too. This is not how we prefer to teach, we want to be with our students,” Sedota said. “We're able to do that and I think we’ve done a pretty good job of it and I think parents feel safe.”
Private schools typically house significantly fewer students than public institutions, making it easier to ensure COVID-19 safety measures, such as 6 feet of separation between students’ desks.
Two of Greenville County's larger private schools, Bob Jones Academy and Christ Church Episcopal School — each with about 1,100 students — said their smaller class sizes, coupled with masks and social-distancing, were key to reopening in person.
Private schools also had a clear financial advantage this fall: They have the funds to invest in creative COVID-19 solutions.
At Bob Jones, every student has a mobile app with screening questions they must answer before getting a "green" screen allowing them in the building. They are temperature checked when they arrive, too.
At University School of the Lowcountry in Mount Pleasant, administrators spent thousands of dollars to purchase tents to facilitate outdoor instruction.
“For us, as an independent school, we felt existential pressure when COVID came. If we’re not doing a good job, then people don’t show up, and we don’t have a school anymore,” said Head of School Jason Kreutner.
Kreutner lobbied federal and state legislators to make tent schools a possibility for other schools, with limited success.
In order to facilitate virtual learning for students at home, the school invested in 360-degree camera systems that allow teachers to instruct students in the classroom simultaneously with virtually enrolled students.
Unlike traditional livestreaming equipment, the new system does not require teachers to stand in one spot during their lessons. Instead, they are free to move throughout the classroom, since the camera follows their motion. Each camera cost around $1,000.
“These are things that the public schools need right now,” Kreutner said. “We’re trying to make sure that we’re role modeling this is what it could look like and that we’re not selfishly keeping it to ourselves.”
The increase in private school enrollment, while often viewed as a good omen for independent schools this year, has also raised several important questions.
It's still unclear whether parents will continue flocking to expensive private schools in lieu of a free public education for their children once the pandemic subsides.
And with two vaccines approved for emergency use in South Carolina, a path toward normalcy has started to take shape for teachers and students across the state.
"Can we retain the kids after this?" Spurrier said. "Did we prove our value is great enough that people will want to continue paying tuition?"
Demi Lawrence contributed to this report.