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Ensuring the health and safety of the student body is top of mind for St. Mildred’s-Lightbourn School in Oakville. When on-site classes resumed in September, masks became part of the school uniform. But, during times that wasn’t possible, the school was able to host virtual tours and online admissions, with great results. For 2021-22, applications are up more than 20 per cent from last year.PHOTOS COURTESY OF ST. MILDRED’S-LIGHTBOURN SCHOOL

While attending school during a global pandemic has its challenges, so does applying for private school – particularly for students (and their parents) who aren’t able to set foot on campus.

“So much of what we do is sharing the vibrancy of SMLS — and families want to make connections within the community. It’s significantly more challenging to do those things remotely,” says Sarah Scandrett, head of admissions and enrolment management at St. Mildred’s-Lightbourn School in Oakville.

“Initially, we were naively hopeful that the two-week closure that the government announced back in March [2020] would just be a two-week closure,” Scandrett says.

“After it became clear that wasn’t likely to happen, just about everything we do in admissions had to shift.”

The school started by shifting open houses to a virtual format, even adding in some evening options. It also launched a virtual tour and visitor hub on its website.

“We had to revisit all of our assessment processes to adapt them and deliver them virtually,” Scandrett says.

“The results have been pretty positive – 60 per cent of new student groups this fall registered after our shift to remote learning.” For 2021/22, applications are up more than 20 per cent from last year.

While the technology has been fairly straightforward, there have been some learning curves along the way, particularly when dealing with younger applicants.

Part of the challenge is “engaging young students you’ve met for the first time over video,” Scandrett says.

“It’s a two-way conversation for them to learn about the school.” But it can still be a stressful experience for youngsters, most of whom have never been interviewed before.

To help prospective students and their parents learn about the school in a stress-free environment, SMLS developed online roundtables where prospective students could talk to current students. These have become so popular that they will likely continue post-pandemic.

“Typically that’s a huge part of learning about schools, to go in and have a look around, see what the students are doing, see how the teachers interact with the students,” says Michelle Barchuk, director of admissions and communications at the Toronto-based Mabin School.

“All of that has shifted.”

If you asked me a year ago I’d say I prefer in-person interviews, and I still do, but one of the highlights is seeing the family in their own space. …That process in many ways has been quite delightful.

Michelle Barchuk, director of admissions and communications, Mabin School

The school has created a number of short videos so parents can get a sense of the space, but “also the space during the time to COVID, which is different,” she says. It is also recording its virtual open house sessions, so if someone is unable to attend, Barchuk can easily share a recording with them.

Zoom calls and virtual interviews are now also part of the admissions process.

“If you asked me a year ago I’d say I prefer in-person interviews, and I still do, but one of the highlights is seeing the family in their own space,” Barchuk says. “Often we’re dealing with our youngest learners. … In this situation they’re comfy at home doing their thing. That process in many ways has been quite delightful.”

Following the interview portion, two Grade 6 students take the family on a virtual tour of the school.

“The feedback has been very positive,” Barchuk says. “To us that’s the marker of success – you’ve been able to communicate who you are as a school.”

At Northmount School in North York, Ont., prospective students typically would have spent the day at the school, getting a sense of what it was like to go there.

“Obviously that’s just not possible now,” says Chris Ruch, vice-principal and director of admissions at Northmount. “Now it’s hard lockdown so it’s back to video calls, but we had experience with that anyway because we have international students.”

Between him and the headmaster, they “get a pretty good read on a student pretty quickly,” he says.

While Northmount offers a video tour of the campus, it’s working on an immersive 3-D virtual tour that will soon be available, “and then as soon as we can we’ll go back to school and we’ll do personal tours again,” he says, adding they won’t be doing open houses until post-pandemic.

For some private schools, it wasn’t hard to pivot to virtual admissions. With international students boarding at the school, staff at Brentwood College School in Mill Bay, B.C., were accustomed to interviewing students and discussing school programs with families from afar. Over recent years, Skype interviews typically accounted for seven per cent to 10 per cent of the total interviews done in any given year.

“Fortunately, the shift to virtual open houses this year hasn’t been completely new for us as Brentwood has used various iterations of virtual presentations as part of the admissions repertoire since around 2007,” says Clayton Johnston, director of admissions at Brentwood College School.

“This past year we moved away from travel to bringing families online. This gave us the opportunity to create a compelling virtual open house presentation for prospective families,” he says.

These open houses are designed to tell the Brentwood story, highlight its programming and deliver a sense of the student experience.

Since last summer, the school has run these presentations monthly (sometimes twice a day to account for time zones) and “the response has been overwhelmingly positive,” Johnston says. “While they will never take the place of a campus visit, these interactive sessions have allowed us to have meaningful dialogue with our audiences and answer in real time any questions families may have.”

To date, more than 400 families have taken part in this process virtually, “and so it’s easy to see, when all is said and done and the pandemic is in the history books, we will continue to offer these kinds of convenient opportunities throughout the year.”


Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.