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The COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact daily life, including private school open house season.

For Kathy Mitchell O’Neal, assistant head of school for enrollment management at Hawken School in Lyndhurst and Chester Township, and John Wuorinen, director of admissions and financial aid at Columbus Academy in Gahanna, the pandemic has forced their schools take a look at their open house format and make adjustments.

For families considering Hawken School, O’Neal said the pandemic affect their plans in a “tremendous way.” But the bright side is Hawken also holds spring open houses. They developed a plan in April, giving them the framework for the fall open house season, she said.

“We got a lot of practice doing it virtually then and it went well,” she recalled. “We could do it on the weekend right now safely, but even if we did that, we know there are students and families that wouldn’t be able to come for very good reasons.”

Some of these changes include holding both in-person and virtual options for open house events and tours. 

“They’re getting all the same content, just not always in person, and we want to try as much as possible to get them the same content and showing them the school, even if students are masked and socially distanced,” O’Neal noted. “So, we also continue to have families visit on the weekends at each of our campuses starting in November. Many schools are just really thinking about the health and safety of the school community and families.”

Columbus Academy events have pivoted to Zoom events, video tours, conducting smaller, in-person tours on the weekends and outdoor opportunities, Wuorinen said.

“During these most unusual times, every school has to be creative in attracting prospective families,” he said, adding there are also some changes within their programming that families should be prepared for. 

Wuorinen suggested parents not only read and discuss each school’s mission statement but also communicate more by phone, email and virtual meetings, have student screenings in smaller groups or virtually, pay close attention and ask pointed questions in tours as parents can’t explore the campuses freely right now and carefully explore the school’s social media channels, as it can give them a peek into school culture.

But even with all of these changes, student recruitment is still important.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, many private schools have seen a significant uptick in inquiries and applications as families seek a safe setting for their students to attend in-person classes,” Wuorinen stated. “With the increase in interest, it is more important than ever to be aware of admissions timelines and to reach out to schools earlier.”

O’Neal added, “It is so critical because in that whole process, you’re not just enrolling a student, you’re also enrolling the family. We’re a community and we also look at whether this is going to be a long-term relationship, as it could be. So, we feel recruitment is important. To do that, you have to spend some time. You don’t buy a house and decide on the first one and buy it. You have to similarly spend time getting to know the school and vice versa. We feel it is important to put in that time investment.”

When preparing to attend an open house, the educators said it is key for both parties to be on the same page – no matter if the event is in-person or virtual.

“As warm and welcoming as many schools try to be, it is harder for us right now because we can’t be as open as we normally would be,” O’Neal said. “Families have to plan right now since you can’t just drop in. These aren’t normal circumstances. So, be sure to plan and get an early start. No one wants to wait a week before the application deadline to start investing in a school. So right now, it’s especially important to be on the same page when starting the open house and application process.”

Wuorinen added, “We know that many prospective families make assumptions about what a high achieving school must be like. So, what they find when they visit a school like Columbus Academy is warmth and a strong sense of community they might not have been expecting. So, to gain an authentic sense of a school when they cannot directly experience the community, parents and guardians may have to work had to determine whether their students would thrive at a particular school.”

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