On a recent morning Milagros Macher toured Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic School with her 9-year-old son, Alberto.
This time last year, thousands of families were visiting huge "choice fairs" and spilling into schools across the Charlotte region for tours and open houses.
But now the application season coincides with a resurgent pandemic. Even at Diocese of Charlotte Catholic schools, which allow visitors on campus, things have changed. They opened in August with students attending every day, and a remote option for students with high COVID-19 risks.
Our Lady of the Assumption Principal Allana-Rae Ramkissoon tells prospective families in-person classes are a high priority -- with everyone masked, screened and safely distanced.
"We always recommend in-person because we are better, stronger together," she said in a presentation to two families. "We learn more, we do more and we can get through more."
In past years, Alberto might have been part of a group tour where visiting children could mingle with students.
"And we would even have kids go into the classroom and you know, stay sometimes half a day," Ramkissoon said.
Now Alberto and his mom stand near doorways to see how the K-8 school in east Charlotte is adapting to COVID-19.
Instead of students piling into a band class to play instruments, one beginning flute player works with a teacher and a computer program.
Instead of walking across the parking lot for Thursday mass in church, Ramkissoon says students now have mass live-streamed to their classrooms.
"Sometimes the lights are off and teachers have those little lights and they make the whole environment like a church," she said.
Macher says it was important to visit before moving her son from public to Catholic school.
"That was an awesome experience, especially for my son," Macher said after the tour, "because I want him to have the feeling of how this environment could be for him."
Many Tours Are Virtual
Normally everyone would agree: In-person visits are vital to finding the best school for a child. But at many schools, that’s not an option during the pandemic.
"Obviously we’re trying hard to keep visitors out of the building right now," says Andrew Moceri, executive director at Pine Lake Prep charter school.
Pine Lake is a K-12 school that draws students from Iredell and Mecklenburg counties. It opened with remote learning in August and brought elementary and middle school students back in the fall. High school remains remote.
Moceri has hired a contractor to shoot a 3-D video tour of the school. It will be posted on the Pine Lake website, with an option to join Moceri for an open house on Zoom.
"And so while they will be displaced from campus, they’ll still get to walk the halls virtually as I tell them about the Pine Lake experience," Moceri said.
School districts are relying on video and online connections, too.
Iredell-Statesville Schools posted a video introducing high school students to opt-in early college programs, done in partnership with Mitchell Community College.
CMS Magnet Applications Open Nov. 30
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools starts taking applications today for 68 choice schools featuring 11 themes, from Montessori for prekindergarteners to college-based high schools that train future teachers and engineers. That's later than usual, but officials were occupied making decisions about the current school year.
Among the 2021 offerings is a new K-8 language magnet under construction in Huntersville. Classes will be taught in Chinese, French and German.
CMS has updated its “CMS Choice” website and offers “concierge Zoom appointments” to walk parents through their options. Individual schools are offering virtual tours and online open houses.
Things always get a bit competitive when magnet, charter and private schools make their pitches to parents. This year there’s a lot at stake for CMS and other school districts, most of which saw significant enrollment declines this year.
Magnet Director Walter Hall says CMS will do its best to win families back. But he can't answer what's probably the biggest question for many families.
"I wish I had a crystal ball and I could look at it and say, 'All right, we’re going to be back in school and everything’s going to be back the way that it used to be,' " Hall said.
The harsh reality for all schools is that August remains an unknown. That means families have to make choices based on an unpredictable education world that no one could have imagined last year.