The Boarding-School Boom

Boarding school had never been in the cards for Landon Moore. In December, he was a senior at Bloomington High School in Illinois; he had always assumed that his father, the school’s principal, would hand him his diploma when he graduated, as to his older brother before him.

But his classes in the fall were virtual, and with the sports season canceled, Landon, 18, saw his dream of earning a basketball scholarship to college fade. With no games, there would be no recruiters to watch him play.

And so, in the first week of January, his parents drove him seven hours to Western Reserve Academy, a boarding school in Hudson, Ohio, which he entered as a junior, giving him a chance to return to in-person learning and delay the college sports recruitment circuit for a year. Within hours of his arrival, Landon was shooting hoops with the school team. The next morning, he was wearing a uniform and sitting in face-to-face classes for the first time since the shutdown began last spring.

I never would have imagined any of this a year ago,” said Landon’s mother, Angie Moore, 49, who works in the human resources department of an insurance company. Landon initially resisted the idea of repeating part of a grade, but the school required it and his coaches encouraged him to take advantage of the extra time, as it would improve his chances of getting a recruiter’s attention at a school where 20 percent of the graduates play college sports.

“Everything happens for a reason,” Ms. Moore said. “In the long run it is certainly going to be better for him personally, academically and hopefully athletically.”

Families like the Moores, who never would have considered sending their children away to boarding schools before the pandemic, are now giving them serious consideration. They’ve grown weary of virtual learning, or of scrambling as schools open and close at the whim of the virus.

Boarding school is not immune to the pandemic — day students and staff come and go, and schools have had outbreaks — but these parents see it as a steadier alternative. For an average tuition of more than $60,000 a year, according to the Association of Boarding Schools, high schoolers (and at some institutions middle schoolers) can have access to a life that resembles normal.

Boarding schools account for a sliver of the American student body. Roughly 35,000 American students attend private school as boarders each year, according to the Association of Boarding Schools. By comparison, 50.7 million American children attended public prekindergarten through 12th grade, and 5.7 million attended private schools in the fall of 2020, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

But who can’t understand yearning to trade video classes for outdoor movie nights, fire pits, snowshoeing and pond hockey?

‘Like a Different World’

Since late last spring, schools have been fielding calls from parents desperate for options. Western Reserve Academy, which has 410 students, accepted 53 between June 1 and Sept. 1 of last year. In 2019, it accepted just 17 students during that same period. Another eight students transferred midyear, including Landon.

Domestic boarding applications for the 2021-22 school year, with a tuition of $65,800 a year, are up 20 percent, and next year the school expects to have 25 postgraduates — seniors who stay on for a fifth year of high school. Normally, the school has about 10.

“It is certainly subsidized, but it’s still a healthy amount of money,” Ms. Moore said of the tuition, which included a financial aid package. “But then when I add up how much it would cost to feed him and to house him and any athletic or academic expenses that come up all of that adds up.”

“By and large, we’re seeing people from all different backgrounds and interests” apply, said Suzanne Walker Buck, head of school at Western Reserve Academy.

The school threw an outdoor festival for students at the end of January with a food truck, a D.J., performers and fireworks, but life is not entirely normal. There have been 52 confirmed Covid cases, including an outbreak in late February. Students must wear masks almost all the time, with exceptions for some outdoor and athletic activities.

While some schools prohibit boarders from leaving campus, Western Reserve students can go downtown for outdoor dining and shopping. Students, faculty and staff must take rapid tests before returning to campus after every break. If a student tests positive, he or she must isolate at home or in a Covid dorm on campus.

The interest in boarding schools is stretching into the coming school year, as parents realize that life may not return to normal by the fall, particularly since none of the available vaccines have been authorized for children under 16 yet. Acceptance letters for the 2021-22 school year generally go out in March, and admissions offices are reporting an uptick in applications from American students, enough to offset the collapse of the international market as foreign students avoid traveling to the global epicenter of the pandemic, if they can even get here.

“Oh man, it’s just nuts,” said Ben Tuff, the admissions director at Rumsey Hall, a junior boarding and day school in Washington, Conn. “It’s like a different world.”

Normally, the school, which boards fifth through ninth graders, has two or three boarding offers on the table by early March. This year, they had 15. “All of our phone calls are a knee-jerk reaction to what was missed out over the last year in the child’s education,” Mr. Tuff said. “The fact that these kids have been stuck at home without any or very much social interaction has set them back so far.”

Applications are up five percent at the Kent School in Connecticut, which this year required its day students to either board or go virtual. At Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, applications are up almost 20 percent, with part of the increase driven by Black applicants and families seeking financial aid. “These are families new to the pipeline, from what we can tell so far,” said Greg Buckles, the dean of enrollment management.

The decision to send a child to boarding school can be a life-altering one for students and parents, particularly for those who never imagined this path. If you switch a child from public school to private school, the curriculum and the child’s friends may change, but life isn’t entirely upended.

But sending a child to boarding school could mean shipping an adolescent hundreds, if not thousands, of miles from home years before the family expected them to go out into the world. Parents suddenly find themselves with an empty nest, relinquishing their parenting duties to the school staff.

“Most families are on autopilot with schooling,” said Peter Upham, the executive director of the Association of Boarding Schools, whose members have reported an increase in domestic applications for next year. But this year, families are “dissatisfied with what’s happening at their current school. They’re suddenly taking a look up and saying, ‘Let’s see what else is out there.’”

And what parents are seeing is a world that feels a little closer to normal. Sure, everyone is wearing masks, and social distancing rules make dining hall dinners a little drearier, but there is at least the promise of the ever elusive Covid bubble. Putney, a school in Vermont with 225 students in a town of 2,700 along the New Hampshire border, has had only two cases of Covid-19. The roughly 75 day students are tested regularly, while the boarding students are tested sporadically.

The boarding students cannot leave campus, they eat in shifts rather than as a group, and school field trips have been canceled. But they are in class five days a week, go cross-country skiing and have jobs cleaning the kitchens and buildings and tending to the farm on the 600-acre property. They clean the barn, milk the cows and feed the alpacas, sheep and horses.

“We’re really, really serious about creating our little bubble here because then the kids can have a little bit more freedom,” said Emily Jones, the head of school at Putney.

Normally, Putney draws applicants primarily from New England and the New York City region. But last spring and summer, the school, where boarding tuition was $66,100 for the 2020-21 school year, caught the attention of families from Texas, Utah, Florida, New Mexico and Alabama. Ms. Jones suspects the school’s isolated location may be a contributing factor. “There is no question that we are in the middle of nowhere and in Vermont, a state that has been very healthy most of the time, just well-managed,” she said. “I’m sure that helped.”

Greener Grass

This is not the first time families have unexpectedly shipped their children off to boarding school. During World War II, some British parents sent theirs to Canadian boarding schools, including Lakefield College School in Ontario, Canada, according to Anne-Marie Kee, the head of the school.

“We survived these global events in the past,” said Ms. Kee, whose school is set on 315 acres about an hour and a half drive from Toronto. “And boarding schools have played a role in keeping kids safe and giving them a home.”

But boarding schools are not hermetically sealed environments. Teachers and staff leave campus. Day students come and go. Outbreaks happen, leaving the schools to contact trace and isolate students who are far from their families. In late February, Western Reserve Academy had an outbreak that rose to 19 cases. The school canceled six days of classes. Boarders were given the option to quarantine on campus or go home. “We’ve had the wake-up call,” Ms. Buck said.

After several of Landon Moore’s teammates tested positive, Landon’s quarantine was extended, so he flew home for a week of remote learning. “He seemed to be fine during quarantine,” Ms. Moore said. “Food was brought to them and he had video games, school work, his phone and teammates to keep him occupied.”

On April 16, Western Reserve Academy will begin vaccinating students ages 16 and up, after Ohio expanded eligibility requirements at the end of March.

Parents may be looking for a social life for their children, but the schools are still operating in a pandemic. For newcomers, that can mean trying to make friends in an environment where everyone is masked, events are canceled, and the typical ice breaking activities are off limits. Students who feel homesick have to weather the loneliness alone since most family visits have been canceled.

Normally, Proctor Academy in Andover, N.H., starts the school year with a five-day orientation in the White Mountains. The weather can be miserable, but the students come away a close-knit group. This year, they spent an overnight on the school’s 2,500-acre forested property instead. “It’s still fun, but it’s not the same kind of bonding experience,” said Karin Clough, the assistant head of school.

The school, with 365 students, has 21 dorms, and this year students cannot enter any dorm but their own. “They become little pods, like little families,” Ms. Clough said. But if a student does not like those dorm mates, there are few options to forge other close connections. They can’t have dinner at their adviser’s house. Or lounge at the student center, which this year has limited occupancy to 12 at a time. “It’s all those in-between spaces that I think kids are missing,” Ms. Clough said.

For Scarlet Bowman, 15, a sophomore, her first year at Proctor has been lonely and isolating. She decided last spring to leave her magnet school in Austin, Texas, because she was worried that it would remain virtual into the fall.

But she has struggled to find her niche in New England. “I expected the community to just be nicer, more welcoming, but because there’s a pandemic and your life is at risk going outside everyday, it’s a lot harder,” she said. Being stuck on campus without any option to leave is “suffocating,” she said.

The winter was cold, and made it even harder to connect with other students. When five students tested positive for Covid-19 after returning from the winter break, dozens had to quarantine, including Scarlet’s friends. Suddenly, the campus felt deserted and surreal. “It was horrible,” she said. “I just wanted to go home.”

But her mother, Rachel Lomas, has a different take on her daughter’s experience. “The grass is always greener, she thinks she might be better off back in Austin,” said Ms. Lomas, 46, who runs a political supper club there. “But I think being home, doing online learning, would have also driven her crazy.”

Scarlet has dyslexia, and Ms. Lomas is thrilled by the academic gains her daughter has made at Proctor, where she is an honor student. Another year of online or hybrid learning “would have been a disaster,” Ms. Lomas said. (She said Scarlet’s brother, a high school senior, also started boarding school last fall at Putney in Vermont, and adjusted easily.)

Ms. Lomas is also grateful that she does not have to manage a 15-year-old’s social life during a pandemic. When Scarlet was home for winter break, Ms. Lomas spent the time policing her activities so she would keep a safe physical distance from friends and boys. She was relieved to send her back to New Hampshire, where the school could enforce its strict policies. “I’m so sad for her that she’s sad, but I think she’ll get over that,” she said. “She’s gotten a great education and she’ll be safe.”

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