Enrollment in Fauquier County Public Schools over the last year has dropped by about 889 students. Elementary school enrollment fell by 512, with second grade seeing the most significant decrease. Middle schools lost 215 students and high schools, 112. Eleventh grade was the only group to see higher enrollment this year than last.
The difference of course, between fall of 2019 and 2020, was a worldwide pandemic that temporarily forced most children and teachers out of schools and onto computers for remote learning. Dissatisfied with this option, some families tried home schooling and others moved to private school settings.
After beginning the school year with most students receiving instruction remotely, public school students in pre-school through fifth grade had the option of returning to classrooms four days per week beginning March 15. Middle and high school students will have the same option beginning April 6. About two-thirds of families are choosing to return to in-person instruction, according to school officials.
Now that they feel everyone can return to classrooms safely, public school officials have said at recent school board meetings that they will work to welcome back students who have left the system. But just how many of those more than 800 students will come back is unclear. Every family’s situation is different.
Trying out options
Mother Sarah Newton said her family had been thinking about a change even before the first case of COVID was reported. In fall of 2020, her daughter moved from Warrenton Middle School to Belle Meade Montessori School in Sperryville. “We had been floating the idea. The pandemic gave us the final push to make this decision.”
Newton’s 13-year-old had been doing “reasonably well” at Warrenton Middle School and the family started home schooling when schools closed down. Newton said she didn’t have high hopes for remote education. “I didn’t feel there would be quality remote education. And everything kept changing and shifting. Do this one week and another thing the next week. I want to extend a lot of grace to the county school educators, but it wasn’t for us.”
Newton said that over the summer of 2020, “we thought long and hard about it. Home schooling wasn’t what we thought it would be. And my daughter really didn’t want me to be her teacher.
“We heard about Belle Meade and decided to test it out. After the first day, my daughter waved at everyone and told them she’d see them tomorrow. It’s the best option for her.”
She added, “I can say with 100% certainty that this school is allowing her to be the person she is meant to be.”
Newton acknowledged that the pandemic has brought with it a lot of negatives, a lot of loss. In fact, she lost her job at a local dental practice for a while, until she was hired back when the business was allowed to open again.
“But the best positive has been finding the school that fit her best. The pandemic gave us the time to take that pause.”
Chanell Maloney and her husband have two children, a son Kade, 5 years old and River, a daughter, who is 7. Before the pandemic, River was attending first grade at Bradley Elementary; Kade was in pre-school at Mountainside Montessori School in Marshall, where his mom also taught physical education part time.
In February, Maloney said, one child had a cold so she kept them home for a week, just to be safe. The pandemic at that time was just beginning to cause concern. The next week, she kept both kids home after the second had caught the cold.
Maloney said that soon after that she pulled both children from school to reduce the chance of them bringing COVID home and possibly infecting a vulnerable relative. “We pulled them from school as a trial. We thought, ‘Let’s see how this goes.’
“A couple of weeks after that, everyone was home [when schools closed in March]. We found we enjoyed it.”
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Maloney said the family had moved to the family farm in December 2019, explaining, “We had these beautiful, epic surroundings to learn from.”
She said the option of teaching her kids at home was something they’d considered before. “We were already toying with the idea of home schooling.” She said that because of the move to the farm, the family would have had to switch elementary schools. “We were in transition anyway,” and since she wasn’t working full time, “it wasn’t a big transition for me to home-school.”
Because the family had had experience with Montessori methods, Maloney didn’t worry about a curriculum. They were used to “child-led learning,” so that spring and summer, that’s what they did.
Maloney describes the “unschooling” they experimented with. “We have baby goats and a pond. I can’t tell you how many ‘pond studies’ we did. We focused on nature-based learning.
“Everything is a learning experience. We did a lot of cooking, measuring; we made clay models of everything. School was like play to them.”
The Maloneys had home-schooling friends “who had the same standards of care,” including masking and social distancing, and their kids were the same age. “We went over there; they came over here.”
When school started in the fall, Maloney decided to continue home schooling. “I pulled the trigger and got a curriculum.” The curriculum she chose includes common core mathematics, which was new to Maloney. “I didn’t learn math that way!”
The children especially enjoy the science lessons. “We forage and have a natural medicine apothecary here at home. My daughter will be eating out of the yard. Now that the violets are coming in, she’ll be turning purple!”
Maloney admitted that there are challenges. Only 5, Kade gets to choose what he is interested in learning; River’s lessons are more structured. He can be a distraction when “he is having a big emotion day,” she said.
Maloney said the more relaxed nature of home schooling allows her to adjust to the children’s needs. “Sometimes they are frisky or can’t concentrate. I’ll push them out the door and tell them, ‘Go jump on the trampoline.’ They run around for half an hour, come back in and have a snack and we’ll try again. If it’s still not working, we’ll try again the next day.”
She admits that home schooling isn’t for everyone. “My husband [John] says if he had to do it, we wouldn’t be home schooling. I’m probably more patient.”
Maloney said the children both want to home-school in the fall. “I’ve already purchased curriculum for next year. I’m enjoying it. They’re enjoying it. We’ll continue until I’m done with it or they are.”
Tracy Baker of Warrenton learned from her COVID trials that what’s good for one child may not work for another. Baker has two children. Madison, 10, was a fifth grader at Bradley Elementary School and her son Jack was an 8th grader at Warrenton Middle when the pandemic closed schools in March of 2020.
Baker was dissatisfied with remote learning at the end of the 2019-2020 school year. “There wasn’t much there,” she said. At the same time, she understands the challenges the teachers and the administration faced. “There were no good options.”
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She said that many Fauquier residents don’t have the infrastructure to learn remotely, but the teachers have to make it work for everyone. “I just decided to take my kids out of the equation.”
In August, she enrolled both children in Virginia Virtual Academy, an option that uses online curriculum and services provided by K12, advertised as “an online public school.”
Baker felt there had been so much back and forth – the children were in school, then out of school. “For consistency, I thought they would be better off with K12.”
Baker herself is finishing up nursing school and her husband, Steven, who works from home, is completing his master’s degree in systems engineering. “We were all learning from home,” said Baker.
Jack likes virtual learning, Baker said, “He gets to sleep until 9, works at his own pace … A lot of his social life is online. He hangs out remotely with his friends and plays games.”
Madison, however, begged to go back to school, her mother said. She returned her more social child to her classroom just before the school system went from two days a week of in-person learning to four days. “She is happy,” said her mother, but misses the lighter academic day of online learning.
Both children will return to in-person public school in the fall, said Baker, Jack to his first year of high school, Madison to her first year of middle school. “We’re hoping things get back to normal in the fall,” she said. “I don’t want to keep them from middle school or high school experiences. We are going back to brick and mortar in the fall.”
Kids finding their groove
Cary Kane’s son Tylen moved from Greenville Elementary School to Highland School in Warrenton in the fall of 2020. The idea had been on the family’s radar already, but the pandemic made it happen. “Tylen is very academically focused. We value in-person instruction and he excels in that environment. We wanted to keep him in that groove. He’s transitioned very well.”
Kane said Highland has kept kids in the classrooms, except for a couple of weeks right after Christmas. There are 14 children in Tylen’s class, three of them learn remotely. “They wear masks, but get to take mask breaks. They’ve done a good job.”
Kane said Tylen will start middle school there next fall.
Kane’s younger son Kellen, a first grader, is attending four-day-a-week classes at Greenville. She credits his “phenomenal teacher,” despite being “pulled in so many directions.”
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Kellen started back to school when the school division opened its doors to students two days a week. She said that her youngest is so happy to be back in school. “I see a huge difference. He comes home excited, opening his backpack to show me things.”
She said she is comfortable having him back in the classroom. “I trust that they are OK. I have talked to the staff about it.”
She said Kellen does not ride the bus. “The schools asked parents who could to drive their kids to school. That was an easy decision. I have no excuse not to drive him to school.”
She stressed that Greenville has been doing a great job keeping the students safe. “When I drop him off, I see that they keep the kids distanced. When they are outside in the nice weather, it’s easier.”
She said she gives the teachers a lot of grace and believes that they and the administrators are making the best decisions they can. “They are trying to do what’s best.”
She admitted that trying to learn remotely last school year was difficult. In the pharmaceutical field, she has been working from home; conference calls were often interrupted by calls from the other room, “Mommy!” She said she’d have to step away from a call “because Kellen’s microphone would stop working or he wouldn’t know how to do something. It was exhausting. I don’t know how some parents did it.”
Feeling like she was being pulled in too many directions, she said. “I was very busy. The work world did not stop for us.”
She remembered her husband Jason saying about remote learning, “This is a lot.”
And Kane acknowledged that many of her co-workers were going through the same difficulties. “Some just had babies and you could hear them crying … I think that it brought us closer together.”
Kane knows the teachers who have children had it even rougher. “This is first grade. All the kids are jittering in their seats. These teachers have to have a lot of caffeine in the morning to keep up,” she joked.
Looking ahead, Kane said she’d like to have both of her sons at the same school, but is not sure whether or not Kellen will make the switch to Highland at some point. “Kellen is a social butterfly. He is still young, so we have time to navigate that.”
Reach Robin Earl at firstname.lastname@example.org