Fed up families exploring private school options

The spectre of COVID-19 getting in the way of a return to the classroom this fall has some parents so worried, they're contemplating switching to a pricey private school instead.

Phones at Ottawa's pricey private schools ringing off the hook

Private schools in Ottawa say they're getting calls and emails from public school parents who are worried the fall will bring more online learning, and more frustration for them and their children. (Montessori World daycare)

The spectre of COVID-19 getting in the way of a return to the classroom this fall has some parents so worried, they're contemplating switching to pricey private school instead.

On Friday, Ontario released three possible scenarios for September, including continuing at-home learning and a hybrid option. Many parents of children in the public school system were unimpressed with the choices.

Here's what some private schools in Ottawa have been hearing from them.

Lycée Claudel

"We have seen an increase in calls and emails from families attending public school," said Sophie-Alice Tremblay-Marchand, director of communications for Lycée Claudel, a private French-language school off Riverside Drive. 

"We were able to resume classes [virtually] as of March 17," said Tremblay-Marchand. "It was almost like a normal day."

Word of that quick reaction has spread, but some parents are still waiting to see if public schools will reopen before smacking down the $10,000 to $14,000 tuition at Lycée Claudel.

Meanwhile, some international students are on standby as their parents wait to find out if they can enter Canada for work, so this fall's enrolment numbers are still up in the air.

Private schools in Ottawa say they're getting calls from parents who were dissatisfied with the frequency or intensity of the virtual lessons offered by public schools. (Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press)

Westboro Academy

There's been a marked increase in calls and queries to Westboro Academy, too.

"At least double," said Meg Garrard, head of school on Brookfield Road E., just a few kilometres south of Lycée Claudel.  "Some families have expressed that they are concerned about the uncertainty. They're not sure what school's going to look like."

Many who call are worried the fall will bring more of what they've experienced over the last three months, according to Garrard. "They were dissatisfied with the online model. They had a negative experience … and they are hoping to avoid it."

Tuition at Westboro is $15,000, and Garrard said many families are seriously weighing that against the prospect of more uncertainty and interruption.

"Everyone's saying, 'We need to be able to do our jobs and go to work,'" she said.

Turnbull School on Fisher Avenue in Ottawa, where the annual tuition is around $20,000. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

Turnbull School

"We've had some interest from families who currently have their children within the public system," said Buddy Clinch, junior school principal at Turnbull School, a private JK-8 school in Ottawa's Carlington neighbourhood. "Some are only kicking the tires at this point." 

Like all Ontario schools, Turnbull is preparing for three possible scenarios including a return to the classroom, but Clinch said his school has an advantage: class sizes are already smaller, so the school can react more nimbly.

"With a smaller total student population and a greater teacher-to-student ratio, we are able to pivot and change our learning platforms as needed," he said.

"Being able to offer those very small group sizes is a big part of what we offer," said Clinch. Of course, that will cost you: annual tuition at Turnbull is close to $20,000. 

Joan of Arc Academy

"There are a lot of people calling," confirms Brian Lamb, head of school at Joan of Arc Academy on Elmira Drive, just off the Queensway near Ikea. "There's a lot of interest in private schools during COVID."

Lamb said the bilingual all-girls school is proud of the consistency it offers its students and their families.

"We didn't have any snow days, we didn't have any strike days and we continued through COVID," he said. 

"Having regular classes, even though they were online, was very much appreciated by our parents," said Lamb, citing the results of an end-of-year satisfaction survey. 

Tuition at Joan of Arc Academy costs more than $16,000 a year. 

OMS Montessori and The Element

"It's shocking how much our enrolment has increased in three months. We're up 30 students," said Carrie Whelan, head of school at OMS Montessori and The Element, which includes kids from toddler age to Grade 12. "Specifically in elementary and high school, we've had an increase of 10 per cent."

Like other private schools in Ottawa, its apparent success in adapting during the past three months is attracting public school families.

"I took our classroom schedules and moved it online," said Whelan. "Our teachers are in their virtual classrooms from 9:00 to 3:30 every day." 

But for most families, the cost is prohibitive. The annual tuition at OMS Montessori ranges from $12,864 to $21,384, while The Element starts at more than $17,000.

If classes resume in the fall, desks will need to be spaced apart to reduce possible exposure to COVID-19. Private schools say their smaller classes put them in a position to comply more easily. (Submitted/Ėcole de la Forêt)

Heritage Academy

"Some parents of former students are reaching out to us," said Cheryl Ward, director of Heritage Academy of Learning Excellence, a school that specializes in teaching students with dyslexia, ADHD, or who are on the autism spectrum. 

"What parents are seeing in the last three months is that all the progress they've made is quickly dwindling," Ward said. 

"The parents are adamant. They are not teachers. It is creating a huge personal strain. You have kids now that don't even want to talk to their parents because their parents had to take the role of teacher."

On Monday, Ward gave tours of the Bayswater Avenue school, where tuition runs $14,900, to three public school families.

"I have seen at least a 20 per cent increase ... in parents asking if there is space available for next year," she said.

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