Students at St. Bernard Prep

Students at St. Bernard Prep are seen on campus in this Feb. 2017 Times photo.

As kids and parents look ahead to changing circumstances when local public schools welcome students back this fall, the Cullman area’s private schools are also eyeing a different on-campus landscape; one greatly affected by the lingering coronavirus pandemic that abruptly ended on-site classes back in the spring.

Plans are on track for all local private schools to start the fall semester on campus, though the pandemic is affecting everything from starting dates to classroom procedure to overall student enrollment. At the K-12 Cullman Christian School, preparations include having a plan in place, should a surge in the pandemic once again force kids to head back home, while keeping classes going online.

“We’re still finalizing all the details of our re-entry plan,” said Cullman Christian Headmaster Joshua Swindall, Ed.D. “But currently, our plan is to be on campus and to start school at the end of August, as well as offering some online options for those who need it. We’re also looking at the possibility of preparing to go fully online in case we face another round.”

To date, all four of the area’s accredited private schools — Cullman Christian, St. Paul’s, Sacred Heart, and St. Bernard Prep — are planning to open their doors to students. But doing so comes with new complications that weren’t there this time last year. At St. Bernard, where a significant portion of the high school student population is drawn from areas well outside of North Alabama, that means an uncertain head count as parents weigh the risks and rewards of sending their children to a college-prep program that’s far from home.

“We have parents; people who normally would have been boarding kids or international students, who are concerned now about the coronavirus situation who are hesitant to send their kids back,” explained St. Bernard Business Manager Stacey Price. “There are other families, too, who have had a parent laid off from their job and right now can’t afford it.”

St. Bernard had about 175 students on campus last year, and a declining student census means a noticeable budgeting crunch at a school that generates much of its revenue from tuition and fees — as well as the Bloomin’ Festival annual fundraiser, which the pandemic scuttled altogether this spring.

“I absolutely think it’s affecting our funding,” said Price. “We’re looking at ways to hedge that a little, but there’s only so much you can do. Your utilities don’t change if kids aren’t on campus. And you still have to pay your faculty. Our funding mostly comes from tuition, from our festivals, and from independent donations from people who support the school. We’re already feeling the changes because of that.”

Despite the pandemic, Cullman Christian School has managed to increase its enrollment — at least so far — over last year’s. Swindall said that puts the school in a fortunate position when it comes to funding, since the majority of the school’s operating costs are funded through tuition payments.

“Because we’re a nonprofit, and we don’t have a denominational covering as a private church school, most of our funding comes from tuition and enrollment,” he explained. “That hasn’t been affected too much, currently. We’ve had some access, because we’re located in the city, to some of the federal CARES Act money as well, so we’re planning to use that for additional cleaning supplies and things that can help us prepare for pandemic-related costs.

Cullman Christian finished the prior year with 137 students enrolled. To date, Swindall said 2020-2021 enrollment is hovering around the 150 mark. “We’ve actually seen a little bit of growth even through all of this,” he said. “Though, of course, that may change, depending on the changing factors that can come into play.”

Although social media abounds with anecdotes of concerned parents looking to home schooling or private schools as a possible alternative for giving their kids a more curated academic environment as fears over public school changes circulate, local private school leaders say that hasn’t yet translated into a rush of new students.

Swindall said his school had seen “a few calls and inquiries — but not a significant number of people filling out applications and coming by to say they’re going to send their kids here because of this pandemic.”

“I don’t work in admissions,” said Price at St. Bernard, “but it seems to me that it’s been pretty typical in terms of the level of interest and the number of applications coming in. We have had a lot of questions about what happens if we have to shut down, and we are working on that right now — getting technology into classrooms; or, if parents want to keep their kids at home because of concerns over exposure, remote learning through video and email. We’re trying to plan so that the pandemic’s not the big disruption that it became in the spring, when everything changed suddenly.”

Preparation to take instruction online is a big part of Cullman Christian’s fall plan, with Swindall looking at the school’s fast adjustment earlier this year as a learning experience for what to expect if circumstances change once classes begin again.

“I feel like we’ll be in a good position to do that, if we need to,” he said. “It’s not ideal, but we’re capable. We’d rather be in the classroom w our students. We’re trying right now to finalize an instructional continuity plan in the event of another quarantine at home, or the like.

“In terms of technology, we’re pretty fortunate. For the most part, our families have wireless and device access in their homes, and our students are able to learn online, and our teachers have the tools necessary to make that happen. The first few weeks are going to be more of a review than we’d typically do in a new year, just to cover any learning gaps that may have happened from last spring to this fall. But all of our students in the spring were still able to finish the semester; there’s no one who has to go back and do remedial work just to advance in grade. In spite of how sudden things were in the spring and the adjustments we had to make, everyone’s progressing.”

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