By Daphne Psaledakis
(Reuters) – Students at a small boarding school in California received an unusual set of instructions this summer: return to campus in the fall armed with a portable chair, a sun hat and sunscreen.
Taking classes out into the open is one key part of Midland School’s plans to get its roughly 85 students back to in-person lessons, while reducing the risk of spreading the novel coronavirus.
The move is not too big a stretch for the students, who grow much of the food they eat in the school’s organic garden, heat water for their showers by lighting a fire, and hike miles of trails on the 2,860-acre campus.
The school hopes that students will be tested for COVID-19 and will quarantine as much as possible before arriving at the campus in Los Olivos, about 45 minutes inland from Santa Barbara.
“What I keep reminding everybody is we are crafting a special year. Don’t expect it to be like any other,” said Head of School Christopher Barnes.
Midland’s return to school after the summer vacation was delayed to mid-September after California Governor Gavin Newsom barred counties with rising virus cases, including Santa Barbara, from resuming in-person instruction until they are taken off a state watch list.
Cases are still rising in California, and Barnes is prepared to further delay the semester or hold classes online if necessary.
He recognizes that Midland is in a privileged position compared to many other schools. Although almost half of students receive financial aid, full tuition is over $62,000 a year.
The school’s resources per student and a 4:1 student-faculty ratio translates into academic and health benefits for students, said Barnes.
“To say otherwise is disingenuous,” he said.
President Donald Trump has pushed for schools nationally to re-open in the fall, a move he sees as key to economic recovery and a way to boost his re-election chances in November.
But school districts in Los Angeles and San Diego, citing “skyrocketing” coronavirus infection rates in California, have said instruction will resume with online teaching only in August.
While Barnes hopes the small residential community at Midland will help create a coronavirus-free bubble, he acknowledges the boarding school environment, where students often eat meals together and share bathrooms, poses unique challenges in the event of an outbreak.
“That’s a blessing and a curse,” Barnes said. “It has some real opportunities that are associated with it and everything else, and it’s also a little bit like a cruise ship.”
Across the country, boarding schools are scrambling to rearrange campus life to get students back, and keep them as safe as possible.
The Association of Boarding Schools represents roughly 200 independent, nonprofit U.S. schools, with a combined total of 90,000 students, half of whom are boarders.
At The Ethel Walker School in Connecticut, Head of School Meera Viswanathan said the school is purchasing tent cabanas and Adirondack chairs so students can attend some classes outdoors.
Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, one of the country’s oldest boarding schools, is modifying its accommodations so that every student can have a single room. It is also remodeling a building where students can quarantine if necessary, Head of School John Austin said.
At Midland, roommates will become de facto family members for the purposes of social distancing and wearing masks. And the school plans to cancel the usual October break to limit students’ exposure.
Parents will be able to visit campus to see their child and hike, but not allowed in certain areas.
Melia Collard, a rising senior at Midland, said she is excited to return to campus, but worries the restrictions could take an emotional toll on new students.
“Homesickness is already hard when you know you’ll see your parents in six weeks. But for a few months, that’s going to be really, really difficult,” Collard said.
Raymond Carr, an incoming Midland senior, recognizes that his final year in school may not look the way he hoped, but says he’ll make more use of the 35 miles of hiking trails on campus.
“There were a lot of things I wanted to do as a senior that now I don’t know if I’m going to be able to,” Carr said. “So, the fact that I still have the outdoors and I haven’t really explored it is what I’m really holding on to.”
(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis in Washington; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Rosalba O’Brien)