Detroit area Catholic schools reopen with in-person classes, wait lists

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

It's a moment John Jernigan has thought about for weeks: walking through the front door of Notre Dame Preparatory and Marist Academy and seeing all of his friends and teachers waiting inside to start the first day of school on Thursday.

Notre Dame Prep Academy student John Jernigan packs up his school bag, including 2020 school supplies of hand sanitizer and masks in Clarkston on August 19, 2020.  John's first official day of school is Wednesday at Notre Dame Prep Academy.

The 15-year-old said he knows school is going to be different this year, starting with everyone wearing face masks, remembering all the social distancing rules and adjusting to a schedule that requires longer classes with less movement around the building.

But boy is he ready.

"I am happy to go back," Jernigan said before school orientation on Wednesday. "Seeing my friends, that's what I am most looking forward to. That’s really kind of it."

Jernigan is among nearly 950 students returning in-person to the Catholic school in Pontiac this week after being away since March, when COVID-19 shuttered classrooms across the state for the rest of the school year.

Notre Dame is among the first wave of Michigan K-12 schools returning for face-to-face instruction five days a week, in contrast to many public schools that are offering hybrid or online-only classes. The school's decision to bring students back into buildings full-time has caused a spike in applications, resulting in a waiting list for students to gain admission.

Since Aug. 1, Notre Dame has had 100 inquiries from families looking to move their son or daughter into the Oakland County school, where tuition ranges from $12,000 to $15,000 a year, says Andy Guest, head of school at Notre Dame.

"Yes, we do have a waiting pool," he said. "It's not based on first-come, first-served. It's based on how strong a student application is and how mission-centered the family is and what availability we have for course selections and grades."

Other private schools with in-person instruction are also in high demand by parents who are unhappy with their district's decision to go remote and keep students home to learn.

Divine Child in Dearborn and the University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy, which bring students back into classrooms Monday, also have wait lists.

Guest said the primary driver in demand has been Notre Dame's in-person instruction plan, which breaks the high school day into four 80-minute classes on one day and the remaining four 80-minute classes on the next day.

"I think COVID-19 is causing them to re-evaluate their priorities,” Guest said. “Their value systems are changing. That could be the result of staying home, thinking about things, the fear of the future.”

The school was 99% full as of Monday, with just under 1,000 students across all grades, preschool to seniors. Guest said the district will not increase its small class sizes — 20 to 24 students typically — to accommodate applicants. In some cases, it has to offer candidates a limited schedule based on what room is available in classes, Guest said.

The school has accepted 20 new students since Aug. 1. It is also offering students an online program, which about 30 are taking it, Guest said.

"We have had good demand. This is definitely a newer phenomenon to get this many calls last minute," Guest said. "Usually our enrollment is set by the end of June."

School officials decided to bring students back partly based on what happens when children are not in school, Guest said.

"There are more health risks for teens not being in school than being in school. Looking at their social well-being, since mid-March we’ve seen a rise in teen anxiety. Kids are lonely. They want to be in school and be with their friends," Guest said.

The school is following health department guidelines and the state roadmap to reopening schools, including temperature checks before entry and a mask mandate.

"We are hoping to set the example for other kids to follow. We are willing to be more aggressive than other school districts," Guest said. "We are not trying to be a guinea pig. We have analyzed all the other information everyone has been given. If the kids practice good hygiene, mask up and if we keep them apart, we can bring them in."

Notre Dame Prep Academy student John Jernigan talks about going back to school from his home in Clarkston on August 19, 2020.

Wait lists elsewhere

Divine Child Catholic parish in Dearborn also has a wait list for its elementary and high schools, which are offering in-person learning. Matt Saxer, director of admissions, said Divine Child has seen a surge in applications recently, especially at its elementary school, which has 566 students. The high school has 852 students.

"We have a waiting list for most of our grades in the elementary school, and most of our high school grades are full," Saxer said. "In a non-pandemic year, we would have been able to accept most of our wait-list students. Most of our wait-list students are from schools or districts only offering online learning for the upcoming year."

Divine Child declined to disclose the number of wait-listed students.

Saxer said many families value in-person learning and are pleased to hear that Divine Child is offering that.

Elementary students attend in-person school every day while high schoolers are on a hybrid program where only half are in the building on a given day while the other students are learning remotely. 

Changes were also made to buildings for the first day of school on Monday.

"Divine Child, in consultation with the Archdiocese of Detroit, has made significant modifications to our buildings and programs such as smaller class sizes, one-way directional hallways, new ventilation and filtering systems, and limiting student movement in hallways," Saxer said.

At U of D, near Seven Mile and Wyoming in northwest Detroit, its 7th and 8th grade academy has a waiting list leading up to the first day of school on Monday, said Jim Adams, director of communications. The school would not say how many students are on the list.

"We did see an uptick in interest after plans were announced in various districts," Adams said. "They want in-person education for their sons. We are offering a hybrid. Students can be there every day or totally remote."

"What helped us out is our teachers did a fabulous job in the spring and the word got around. And that’s why there is the interest. We invested in cameras in all of our classrooms and other technology so when we do a hybrid, our students at home are seeing a live classroom," Adams said.

About 56% of students will be at school every day, with 28% split between home and school and 16% online at home, Adams said. In the event the state moves back into Phase 3 and all schools are forced back into online learning, U of D will be ready, Adams said.

"God forbid we have to fall back to Phase 3 but we have things in place. And the schedule will work remote," Adams said.

Many public schools in Michigan have moved to online learning for the first two months of school, despite a desire to bring students back in person, citing health and safety risks.

The state's largest school district, Detroit Public Schools Community District, plans to offer both in-person and virtual learning for its 51,000 students.

Notre Dame Prep Academy student John Jernigan, mother Jean Jernigan and father Brad Jernigan talk about their concerns of sending John back to school in the kitchen of their Clarkston home.

'100% comfortable'

Back at the Jernigan house in Clarkson, where John was getting ready for orientation at Notre Dame and stocking his book bag with extra masks, hand sanitizer and tissue, his parents Jean and Brad Jernigan said they were both happy with the school's plan, preparations and communications to parents.

John has attended the school since 6th grade.

"I am totally 100% comfortable with it. They came up with a plan. And different plans depending on where we were on the state," Brad said. "The plan I feel is very safe. They are being very strict with the kids about what their expectations are and the kids are going to have follow those expectations. They are taking temps before school."

Jean said the school's facilities director has worked all summer to make sure everything is set up safely at the coed, college-preparatory school.

"Let’s face it: there is no possible way it’s 100% failproof, but at the same time they are doing everything they can," Jean said. "The school and class sizes are already smaller. They've got extra space they set up."

The Jernigans have seen an increased interest in the school this summer from friends, neighbors and others, with most just asking questions about the parochial school founded in 1994 by Marist fathers and brothers.

If a COVID case is confirmed at their son's school, the Jernigans said they would want information on whether he was exposed to the person and would consider quarantine and online learning if necessary. But they would send him back.

Notre Dame Prep Academy student John Jernigan makes his breakfast from his home in Clarkston before going to school for orientation on August 19, 2020.  Notre Dame Prep Academy's first official day of school is Wednesday, August 20, 2020.

"It's important the kids get back. It’s important for them to have face-to-face connections with their friends. They talk about their summers," Brad said. "This interaction is very important at this age."

An in-person learning environment is far better for kids, Jean said, and there is more accountability with the school. She says she understands sending a child to school is not possible for everyone and she acknowledges her family is fortunate to do so.

"We and others are fortunate to be able do this and go to school in person for as long as it will last, because I don’t know that any of us are confident this is going to be forever, this in-person environment," Jean said.