Unpacking the revival of American boarding schools

More families in the United States are sending their children to boarding schools like Western Reserve Academy in Ohio (pictured here) so they can experience a life resembling pre-pandemic normality.
More families in the United States are sending their children to boarding schools like Western Reserve Academy in Ohio (pictured here) so they can experience a life resembling pre-pandemic normality.PHOTO: NYTIMES

Boarding school had never been on the cards for Landon Moore.

In December last year, he was a senior at Bloomington High School in Illinois in the United States. He had always assumed 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 autumn were virtual, and with the sports season cancelled, Landon, 18, saw his dream of earning a basketball scholarship to college fade.

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.

"I never would have imagined any of this a year ago," said Landon's mother Angie Moore, 49, who works in human resources.

Families like the Moores, who never would have considered sending their children to boarding schools before the pandemic, are now giving them serious consideration.

They have 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 parents see it as a steadier alternative.

For an average tuition fee of more than US$60,000 (S$80,430) a year, according to the Association of Boarding Schools, high-school students - and at some institutions, middle-school students - can have a life resembling normality.

Roughly 35,000 American students attend private school as boarders each year, according to the association.

In comparison, 50.7 million American children attended public schools all the way through 12th grade, and 5.7 million attended private schools in autumn last year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Western Reserve Academy, which has 410 students, accepted 53 between June 1 and Sept 1 last year. In 2019, it accepted just 17 students during that same period. Another eight students transferred mid-year, including Landon.

The decision to send a child to boarding school can be life-altering.

It could mean shipping an adolescent hundreds, if not thousands, of kilometres from home years before the family expected him or her to go out into the world.

Parents suddenly find themselves with an empty nest, relinquishing parenting duties to the school staff.

"Most families are on autopilot with schooling," said Mr Peter Upham, executive director of the association, whose members have reported a rise in domestic applications for next year.

But this year, families are "dissatisfied with what's happening at their current schools. They're suddenly taking a look up and saying, 'Let's see what else is out there'".

What parents are seeing is a world that feels a little closer to normal. Everyone wears masks and social distancing rules make dining hall dinners a little drearier, but there is at least the promise of the elusive Covid-19 bubble.

Putney, a school in Vermont with 225 students in a town of 2,700, has had only two Covid-19 cases. The day students, which number about 75, are tested regularly, the boarding students sporadically.

The boarding students cannot leave campus. They eat in shifts and field trips have been cancelled.

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.

At Proctor Academy in New Hampshire, students this year cannot enter any dorm but their own. If a student does not like those dorm-mates, there are few options to forge other close connections.

For sophomore Scarlet Bowman, 15, 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 it would remain virtual into autumn.

"I expected the community to just be nicer, more welcoming, but because there's a pandemic and your life is at risk going outside every day, it's a lot harder," she said.

Being stuck on campus is "suffocating", she added.

Her mother has a different take.

"The grass is always greener. She thinks she might be better off back in Austin," said Ms Rachel Lomas, 46, who runs a political supper club. "But I think being home, doing online learning, would have also driven her crazy."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 12, 2021, with the headline 'Unpacking the revival of American boarding schools'. Subscribe