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At Upper Canada College, principal Sam McKinney said staff have been using the summer months to plan for the return of students.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

At Appleby College, an elite private school in Oakville, Ont., student desks will be spaced two metres apart, plexiglass shields will be in the dining hall – as well as at the teacher’s desk and the first row – and those following at home will be able to interact through cameras and televisions mounted in the classrooms.

Similar health and safety provisions are being made in many private schools across the country as they field more inquiries from anxious parents looking to escape the public education system.

“We [did] get some calls … over the last month from families who were reconsidering their options and just wondering what’s going on, especially because of the degree of uncertainty out there,” said Innes van Nostrand, principal at Appleby, where tuition is around $40,000.

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Back-to-school measures released by most provincial governments in recent weeks don’t lower class sizes for the youngest learners in the publicly funded system, which teachers and public-health experts say will make physical distancing virtually impossible.

The private system, meanwhile, tends to be smaller, have fewer students in classrooms and more flexibility to make changes largely because they don’t have to negotiate with teachers’ unions.

Some education experts fear that larger elementary-school classes, with more than 30 students, could drive affluent families into a private system or even to establish what are known as learning pods in homes with friends and neighbours.

“I think that the potential of creating an even bigger divide is the big worry,” said Annie Kidder, executive director of the advocacy group People for Education, adding that about 93 per cent of students attend public schools. She said inquiries do not necessarily translate into families leaving public education: “We’ll only know in a year or two.”

Mr. van Nostrand said middle-school classes at Appleby will hold as many as 10 students, with some groups studying in newly purchased portables. High-school students will likely have a mix of in-class and online instruction, but televisions mounted in classrooms, along with cameras and microphones, will allow them to interact with their teachers and classmates.

Similar to provincial governments and school boards, Mr. van Nostrand said his school is trying to balance the health and safety of staff and students with providing a quality education program. “We think we’ve put in place the kinds of provisions and tools that will allow us to deliver on what I think is a good balance between those things,” he said.

Several private schools say they started receiving calls from parents soon after in-class instruction ended in the spring. Parents turned to social media to express frustration with the varied instruction their children received remotely in the public system – and many worry that it will be a similar experience if there’s a second wave and students are forced back into their homes.

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Private schools, however, shifted quickly to provide their students with remote learning, through live online learning sessions through the day.

Daryl Weaver, the principal at Vancouver College, said his staff were able to pivot “fairly quickly” to distance learning and “that created a lot of positive news about us in the community.” He said there has been interest from families in having their children attend the school, where tuition is $8,200. However, the school is not increasing its enrolment so “there’s just been the odd student here and there, we’ve been able to slot in,” he said.

Mr. Weaver said his staff are looking at how to keep some of the culture at the school despite changes this year. They are considering running a more intensive intramural sports program or pairing up with another school now that competitive sports is on hold. “We’re just looking at all the possibilities,” he said.

At Upper Canada College, an all-boys private school in Toronto, principal Sam McKinney said staff have been using the summer months to plan for the return of students. In the younger grades, where children will have a more difficult time wearing masks, classes will run full-time but with 15 or fewer students in a group.

In middle-school grades, “where we have higher degrees of confidence in the students’ ability to wear [masks] without significant well-being concerns, we felt we could perhaps run slightly larger classes,” said Mr. McKinney, adding that the school is deciding whether to bring those students back full-time or in smaller groups on alternate days. High-school students would have a mix of in-class and remote learning, but the school has added cameras to classrooms, he said, so teens can tune in for lessons.

Mr. McKinney said there have been some inquiries for families to have their children attend, but the school settled on its enrolment in the spring. Tuition is about $35,000.

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“We probably have, in independent education, a little more flexibility and perhaps some opportunities through resourcing to be able to come to slightly different models of delivery,” he said.

Carrie Whalen, head of school at OMS Montessori and The Element High School in Ottawa, which includes toddlers to Grade 12, said inquiries from families on enrolment has doubled from what it was at this time last year.

“Oh my goodness, I wish I had more room,” Ms. Whalen said. “There’s definitely a desire, I guess, for something different.” Tuition at the school is around $15,000.

Ms. Whalen said the school is looking to have smaller classes this year, with as many as 15 or 20 students. It will also use its three acres of land for outdoor classrooms.

“It’s tough, it’s tough for everyone during these times,” Ms. Whalen said, “but I think we can make those adjustments quite easily for the child.”

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