The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many uncertainties, including what fall schooling will be like. The concerns range from requirements on face coverings to the difficulties of distance learning. With these uncertainties, parents and guardians may decide to start with distance learning with their school district or try having their children attend a private school or homeschool.

After hearing these concerns from parents, the Verndale Area Christian Academy and Child Care Center decided to open their kindergarten and first grade private school a year early, according to director of child care Renee House. The school will have 10-20 students. The child care for birth to 5-years-old and the before and after school program for kindergarten to fourth grade students will continue.

“A lot of what we’re seeing is parents are not wanting their children to have to wear masks,” House said. “A lot of parents I’ve talked to are struggling at whether to send them or not send them, to do either homeschooling or private just because of the unknown.”

With the unknowns in place, the center has reduced their class sizes, is not allowing parents in the classrooms and is increasing cleaning schedules. Students and staff will be encouraged to wear face coverings though they are not required, according to House.

While the kindergarten- and first-grade school enrollment is new this year, House said the center originally lost a majority of their children when the COVID-19 pandemic began in March, from 55-60 children to 15. At Sacred Heart Area School in Staples, interim principal Sara Kriefall said their fall enrollment numbers have “stayed consistent” and in the spring, students completed paper packets with some online aspects. The school will also limit the number of students to 50% capacity.

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“A school building just isn’t the same without that little bit of noise, that good humming of learning,” Kriefall said. “We’ll do it as safe and the best way we can do possible to get these kids what they need.”

The school has families returning for grades preschool to sixth with breakfast and lunch in their classrooms, barriers between desks, older students not being able to help the younger students, increased cleaning and face coverings required, according to Kriefall. Students will still be able to attend mass.

Parents’ concerns at private schools still of course include “How long will we get to be in?” and “What exactly will it all look like?,” as Kriefall said. And students are just as eager to see their friends again.

“That’s what we love about our school is it’s a smaller school so we’re able to be kind of a little family,” Kriefall said.

With numerous factors to consider, House again spoke to the uncertainty parents are facing for the 2020-21 school year.

“Parents are not sure what is the best solution for them. If they’re able to stay home and homeschool, I think a lot of parents are thinking that direction but most parents are having to work, and so they’re having to come up with a better solution for their kids,” House said.

As a member of the East Otter Tail-Wadena Area Christian Homeschool and Raising Arrows groups, Jenni Middendorf said 20 people over the last month have joined the EOTW Facebook group. The group formed about six years ago and includes encouragement from fellow homeschool families and once a month meets at a church in Wadena for gym time and snacks. The group is “built on respect” with Christian elements, though members do not have to be Christian, as Middendorf said.

“It’s really exploding. We had lots of people ask, text, call about it,” Middendorf said.

Middendorf said she’s heard from parents interested in homeschooling and one woman came to the Raising Arrows meeting at their farm last month.

“I think a lot of the new ones are mainly they just don’t know what’s going to go on in school this year,” Middendorf said. “With the distance learning that was hard on a lot of parents and … a lot of them don’t want to go through it again, so I think part of it is that and then it (homeschooling) is becoming more popular.”

In her daily homeschool routine, Middendorf and her six children work on math, language arts, science and history all before noon along with outdoor chores on the farm to start their day. She began homeschooling about nine years ago when their oldest’s kindergarten day included riding the school bus at 7 a.m. and not returning until 4:30 p.m.

Middendorf said the benefits for her family are being able to include Christian elements and have a flexible schedule.

“One of the main benefits for us being Christian is you can intertwine that in everything. A majority of the curriculum we use is Christian curriculum so it can even just be a simple Bible verse that they have to do as copy work or just to look up in their Bible and read so you can always watch what they’re reading instead of some of the stuff at public school that the teachers assign and you don’t have a say,” Middendorf said.

While there is not a designated Bible class, Middendorf uses a Christian history book and they enjoy reading devotionals, and science is readily learned on the farm.

“There’s so much that they can just learn by what they like instead of what the school has to teach,” Middendorf said.

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