If you had told me last February that we would have spent the majority of 2020 in the midst of a global pandemic and that now, a year later, both of my boys would be enrolled in private school, well, I would have had trouble wrapping my mind around that.
Even though I work in a private school and get a 50% tuition break, I still was hesitant about putting my kids in private school, mainly because even a 50% discount on tuition is waaaay more than “free” which is what public school tuition was.
But, I had vaguely considered putting Little ThreeYear in because he’d had a bit of trouble fitting in in his elementary school. It was a lot bigger than his New Hampshire elementary school and he hadn’t found a group to click with. We’d also had a weird situation at the school and wanted to get him away from that.
Once the quarantine hit and I saw how his public school was tackling virtual school (compared to how our school was tackling it), the decision was a lot easier. Little ThreeYear did not do well with self-directed, asynchronous virtual learning with zero live classes.
Both of my boys have ADHD and anxiety. Both are very smart but struggle in school because of the lack of executive functioning they have due to the ADHD. Both have improved tremendously over the years in their ability to manage their work and homework, but it’s never been easy.
As a mom, that has been hard for me, because I was an excellent student. I never had any trouble in school and my parents never had to help me with anything school-related.
With my boys, I have had to sit next to both of them to do homework until grade 6 (so, for Little ThreeYear, I still sit next to him to do homework, or I at least have to be in the room).
The Decision Process
One of the hardest parts of Covid has been making decisions. We were given massive amounts of new information and scenarios to sort through as a nation, as a world. Making decisions about what to do in unknown or untested scenarios is hard. There were also many unknowns. When would be able to go back to work, school, restaurants, in person? If we could go back in person, would we have to be virtual in the winter? How could we keep our families safe?
We had a great number of unknowns, a lot of information (some of it misinformation), and some pretty dangerous consequences.
I wasn’t sure what the right answer was, but I had a feeling that if the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that we go back to in-person school, then it was important for my kids to go back. I had a feeling that since transmission rates were so low among young kids, that it would be fairly safe. That feeling had not been tested with hard data though–and it was very possible that I was wrong.
Junior ThreeYear had done fairly well, we thought, with virtual schooling, managing fairly good grades through the Spring, and handling being in front of a computer with remarkable aplomb.
So we hedged our bets. Since Little ThreeYear had had a lot of trouble with virtual schooling, we decided he should go to private school for 5th grade at the start of the 2020-2021 school year and that Junior ThreeYear should complete 8th grade in the middle school where he had previously done so well.
Still, the decision-making process was fraught. First of all, everyone around me had an opinion. With my tuition break, it would cost me $9,000 to send Little ThreeYear to private school. Plus, I would have to pull him out of a school he had just been getting adjusted to and away from any friends he had made.
“What do you think he’ll get from this new school?” I was asked. A good question, but hard to answer.
“I think it’s smaller, which will help with his anxiety. He’ll be able to go to school in-person five days a week. He’ll be outside a lot, which he loves, and it’s project-based, which will allow his creative self to flourish.”
I answered these questions, but I wasn’t sure I was right. I wasn’t even sure he would be in school in-person, as the school was still deciding that based on Covid trends through the summer.
Plus, I was saying that private school was nine thousand after-tax dollars better than public school. Would it really make that much of a difference?
Throughout the Spring, we continued to talk to family members, friends, and colleagues about what to do, as we wrestled with the decision.
On top of the decision to change Little ThreeYear’s school, we had to contend with possibly sending him back in-person during Covid.
As scary as it was for students, it was worse for teachers. Many teachers that I worked with were scared to come back, and some didn’t return. Being an educator this year was, especially for some with underlying health conditions, what some of my colleagues considered Russian Roulette with their lives.
Our school worked with a team of doctors to follow all CDC protocol. Students and teachers would wear masks at all times when on campus, even when outside (on our substantial outdoor campus) and in the gym. They could eat and drink but had to be twelve feet from each other. We had students six feet apart inside, and had air filters in each classroom. We would teach outside under tents as much as possible during the warmer months. We had to fill out a health app each morning and take our temps at home, as well as have them checked at school.
Now we’ve seen that transmission rates at school have been low. That matches my intuition from the summer, thank goodness, but no one knew that would be the result. The first days of school were incredibly hard for teachers, not only because they had to figure out how to teach twice as many classes in the same amount of time, but they had to figure out how to teach virtually and in-person on the same day, given how our school had a hybrid schedule for 7th-12th grades, how to work microphones over masks, how to turn on and off the air filters, and on, and on, and on.
Teachers were also petrified of catching Covid. We all washed our hands and hand sanitized like crazy, sprayed desks down with disinfectant between classes, yelled at kids to keep their masks on ad nauseum…
This was later, though, after we had made the decision to send Little ThreeYear. How and when did we finally do it?
There were two main events that helped us to finally make the decision to send Little ThreeYear to private school.
First, I had a conversation in late Spring with my neighbor about a situation that Little ThreeYear was in at his old school. I won’t go into specifics, but suffice it to say that it made us nervous. “Get him away from that,” she cautioned, and I felt a ring of truth to her words similar to the ring of truth I’d felt when I talked to my friend about moving South.
Second, I had a realization at some point during the Spring, as I mulled our decision over. “I am the expert here,” I realized. “I am the only person in this situation who knows our child, who understands the incredibly difficult Spring he has had, who knows the intricacies of the private school we are thinking about. Mr. ThreeYear and I need to stop asking others and listen to ourselves.”
After those two revelations, we sat down and had a chat with Little ThreeYear.
I want to acknowledge, though, that even though those two situations helped us finalize our thinking, we had been discussing the possibility since I started working at my private school last year. It is an incredible school and the teachers are pretty amazing. In our middle and high school staff, we have three PhDs, one an astrophysicist who used to work at NASA, a lawyer who is also a published writer, a former college professor, a former cop, and many other teachers with years of experience, passion, and dedication for teaching. My colleagues are just amazing. Smart, interesting, and passionate about what they teach.
Also, the kids that go to the school get the coolest experiences, even in a Covid year. Last year, seventh graders got to watch a genuine Japanese tea ceremony performed by volunteers from Japan who live in this area. Elementary and middle schoolers had their own gardens that they tended in the Spring and Fall to grow their own veggies and learn how to compost. Middle schoolers this year have taken art in the forest, since our amazing art teacher took a forest therapy course this summer and is using art to help them manage Covid anxiety. They’ve made forts, crossbows, Christmas decorations from natural objects, and much more. Middle and high schoolers get to talk to experts in their field, like a scientist in the European Space Agency who talked us through the James Webb telescope design recently.
So, the decision process was long, it was colored by the fact that I work at the school, and it was colored by Covid and the virtual schooling experience we had in the Spring, which was a nuclear-grade meltdown on a daily basis.
After we made the decision to change Little ThreeYear’s school, we had to convince him. Our youngest is headstrong, passionate, and very anxious. He also loves routine.
We decided, not surprisingly, to introduce the idea slowly. Over a series of weeks, we started talking to him about how he would feel going to school with Mom next year? He didn’t seem excited, stating he would miss his friends at school, even though it would be cool to go to school with his mom.
After a few weeks of that, we posed the idea as a question. “What if he went to private school next year?” He was upset, and started yelling. I said, “I have an idea. What if you try out the school for a few weeks? Try it out, see how you like it. Then, if you don’t like it, you can go back to your old school.”
Once we gave him the out, he said he would try out the new school. All through the summer, he told people that he was going to a new school, but would probably be going back to his old school after a few weeks.
When he started at the private school, he told his teachers the same thing. It wasn’t until sometime in September that he came to me and said, “I’ve decided to stay here for the year. I won’t be going back to my old school.” Phew.
The Application Process
We had to fill out a long application for Little ThreeYear. He had to take writing tests, math tests, and other tests to make sure he was able to do grade-level work. I had to submit paperwork for his IEP, which he had because of his anxiety and ADHD.
Unfortunately, because of Covid, the school took a long time to accept him, and I found it was a very annoying and frustrating process. They did not give us the green light until early August.
Finally, school started for him and for JuniorThreeYear. Junior’s public school was 100% online, and as his school year began, I watched him sit in front of a computer from 9-4pm each day, with a 45-minute break for lunch.
I wrote his principal, who assured me the schedule was fine and they were powerless to change it anyway. It was frustrating, since in the Spring his school had had a much different schedule where they’d only had half as many hours in front of the screen.
Little ThreeYear and I rode off to school each day, where I spent half my time teaching eighth graders who were able to come to school and interact with each other, walk around outside in the sunshine, and have in-person contact with their teachers.
I’d come home to see my own eighth grader, grungy from wearing the same clothes each day, disappear into his bedroom each afternoon, barely leaving his room.
“Is that normal?” Mr. ThreeYear and I would ask each other. “He’s a teenager, but…”
After two weeks of school, we asked Junior ThreeYear, “Would you like to go to Mom’s school as well?”
Junior ThreeYear is a frugal old man at heart. He doesn’t ever want to do anything that would put anybody out, or be financially disruptive. He’d heard us talking about the cost of private school with his brother. So, at first, he told us, “No. It’s too expensive. This is fine.”
We kept telling him that we had the money, that his education was more important, and that we wanted to do the best thing for him. Even his grandmother weighed in, talking to him about how it might be a good thing to go to school in-person.
Finally, after about three weeks of thinking about it, he told us he wanted to switch schools.
Again, we had to go through the painful application process. And once we’d completed all the paperwork, weeks went by. We heard nothing. Meanwhile, JuniorThreeYear was missing weeks where he could have been getting to know a new school and new classmates.
Finally, I’d had enough. I made a big fuss, sent emails to several people, and complained about how long the process was. Turns out rote incompetence was at work–typical. JuniorThreeYear was admitted a few days later.
He started attending private school the next week, in mid-October.
Now we had two $9,000 bills to pay. Eighteen thousand after tax dollars per year for two kids. Whew.
Was It Worth It?
As humans, we look for information that supports our personal biases and beliefs, so it’s probably impossible to be unbiased in my assessment of how they’ve done after the switch.
But what we noticed in both kids is that they were so animated once they came home from school.
Our 13-year-old, who’d spent almost all of his time in his room and barely smiled, was now an awkward, chatty, lanky teen who spent as much time sharing his newfound knowledge of random facts as he could. He was rarely in his room, preferring to hang out with us downstairs. Both Mr. ThreeYear and I made the belated realization that he had been depressed through the Spring and Fall.
Little ThreeYear slowly, painfully, made friends. He began taking more responsibility for his work, completing homework on his own, and excitedly completing projects he’d started in school. He had a rough transition period, as we expected, but quickly began to connect with people in his class, and I watched happily as he began to participate in his class’s impromptu soccer games during breaks and lunch.
Both boys have been able to join sports at the school, sort-of. There are not a lot of competitions, but there are practices, at least for swimming. The school is so small that any child can play any sport. There are no try-outs.
Oh, also, I’m Junior ThreeYear’s Spanish teacher. And, to my delight, he has been learning Spanish at a fast clip. It’s been really fun to be his teacher (he calls me “Señora”).
I don’t know if it is worth the cost. I thinking that long-term, they will not have had a lost year, as so many kids have in this country and around the world. That will put them at an advantage when they get into college, I think. If they stay at this school, will that affect our ability to save for their college? It already has. We’ve put less in their accounts each month. Will it give them a leg up for scholarships and the like? I have no idea. Have they had a great year? Without a doubt. Have they learned a lot? Yes. They’ve learned incredible higher-level thinking skills through our project-based learning instructional model.
Next year, Little ThreeYear starts middle school and JuniorThreeYear starts high school. Will we keep them at this school?
Well, that is a good question. Per my contract, I have to pay 50% tuition for the first five years I work there. After that, I get free tuition for the kids. That means that I would have three more years after this school year ends where I would need to pay $18,000 (or more!) after-tax dollars for both kids to attend.
Since that is a lot of money, and we are practical people, we decided to enter both kids in all of the area lotteries for (no-tuition) charter schools. Yes, in the unlikely chance they won a spot, that would mean changing schools again, but we made the decision for a couple of reasons.
First, I have had several issues as a teacher at the school this year. Again, I won’t go into details, but it has been a hard year. While I love teaching and love my colleagues, I do feel a bit trapped in this position now that both boys attend the school. If one or more attended a charter school, it would not only cost less, it would give me the ability to make a change.
While charter schools have been largely on-line this year, they’re starting to return to in-person instruction, and our governor is pushing for full-time in-person instruction this Spring.
We will not know if either boy has won a spot in any of the schools until the end of this month. So, we will not be able to even think about a decision for next year until then.
Both boys have had a great year. They both really love going to this school and changing them again would be hard. That said, kids are resilient, and if they win the lottery, we will strongly consider changing them.
If Covid has taught us anything, it is that we have to be flexible and make quick changes in reaction to new threats, possibilities, and/or info coming our way. I’m not great at quick change, but I’m working on it.
We will keep evaluating new information to make the best decision we can for our kids, long term.
A few lessons I have learned from this decision:
- Not every decision can be made in strict financial terms
- It is often you who has the most information about a decision affecting your family and your life. Evaluation your options carefully but trust your instincts.
- It’s okay to change your mind. What’s right for you/ your family at one moment in time may not be right at a subsequent moment in time.
I’d love to hear about any decisions you’ve made during Covid that were particularly difficult to make, and the results you’ve had!