U.S. Boarding Schools: Resilient in the Pandemic and Beyond

Boarding schools have responded seamlessly to continue delivering quality education during the pandemic.


As an industry, boarding schools transitioned smoothly from residential to distance learning with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020. Both students and parents were pleasantly surprised with the well-thought-out delivery of the academic program.

In addition to academics, boarding schools placed emphasis on nurturing the strong personal relationships students have with peers and teachers. During the pandemic, it has been more important than ever to maintain close communities. Chapel, advisory programs and other optional virtual gatherings remained popular and sustained morale even though everyone was apart.

In the fall of 2020, most schools remained open, welcoming their boarders back into dormitories where residential learning resumed. Schools have well-considered reentry plans in place to keep students, faculty and staff safe inside a “bubble.” Accustomed to structured life away from home, returning students found an appropriately regimented reception on campus that was both warm and safe.

In new twists to old procedures, campus receptions involved COVID tests, temperature checks and temporary quarantine while awaiting test results, followed by reentry into dorms and classes. Masks, social distancing, small meal settings and fewer athletics mean school looks and feels different.

Still, while teenagers often grouse at structure and change, all have been encouraged by a real spirit of cooperation and camaraderie that allowed students to overcome early misgivings.

Life on hall may still include roommates, as a dorm or hall becomes its own “pod” and is managed as you might a large family, while interaction with other halls or dorms is restricted. Liberal leave policies have been suspended and replaced with lots of on-campus weekend activities. Similarly, academic calendars may now have only two large breaks: Thanksgiving through the New Year’s holiday and an extended spring break midway through the spring semester.

Finally, technology plays an important role. Mandatory wrist bands that monitor students’ temperature, oxygen levels and sleep patterns are in place in many schools, as are phone apps that measure social distancing.

Mandatory wrist bands that monitor students’ temperature, oxygen levels and sleep patterns are in place in many schools, as are phone apps that measure social distancing.

The industry demonstrated it could adapt rapidly to the new circumstances and keep everyone safe and their studies progressing. Several lessons have been learned that ensure American boarding schools will remain at the forefront of best practices in secondary education. First and foremost is that students learn best in small caring communities that remain in place, fostering the strong relationships at the core of effective teaching and learning.

Continuing Appeal for Foreign Service Families

As they have for decades, American boarding schools remain a popular choice for Foreign Service parents to educate their children, whether they are posted at home or abroad. FS careers are rewarding, but they come with a lot of transitions for professionals and their families.

Each new overseas assignment brings excitement, as well as its own set of complexities, many surrounding an officer’s dependents. Is this a safe posting for Americans? Are there suitable educational options for the kids? When are we likely to move again? What are the different educational allowances? How can the State Department assist us in navigating our options?

By the time they are teenagers, children start to consider these complexities, as well, and to express opinions. “Another move! Are you kidding me?” exclaimed one such student on news of a new posting. The constancy of a single high school experience now outweighs any excitement that may come from a new location.

For this student and many like him, maintaining some level of continuity and social stability is often a major consideration. Parents see the value, as well. These students want to settle into a new school with the knowledge they can commit, because they know they will stay to graduate with friends and teammates. Like many other children with parents working abroad, this student and many like him chose an American boarding school.

Eva, a freshman at a Virginia boarding school, offers this about her experience: “During my first visit to [campus], I had an instant connection to one of the teachers, because we had both lived in Oman at the same time. During my first semester away from home, sophomores helped me with homesickness, and my teachers helped me stay focused on coursework. They encouraged me to play basketball for the first time, and I loved it. I am getting the attention I need in the classroom, and friends who are day students (local students who do not board) often invite me to stay with them over the weekend. [It] feels a lot like the Foreign Service to me because everyone looks out for one another.”

Says Eva’s mother, Christy, a member of the Foreign Service: “Boarding school felt like an international school with a strong sense of community. I can see that she’s more confident about trying a new sport or activity without the fear of failure.”

More Affordable than You Might Think

These students and many like them would like their high school experience to be four years at the same institution, and boarding schools are uniquely suited to meet this need. Foreign Service parents exploring the boarding school option should inquire about the possibility of a four-year financial aid package rather than the typical annual arrangement.

Some schools can tailor a multiyear award that accounts for a change in educational allowances. This can be particularly helpful for a family that starts abroad and is then posted at the agency headquarters in Washington, D.C., for a short tour. A multiyear financial aid package can make remaining at the same school possible.

Foreign Service parents exploring the boarding school option should inquire about the possibility of a four-year financial aid package rather than the typical annual arrangement.

For those families who do end up posted in Washington, D.C., the large number of mid-Atlantic boarding schools may be particularly attractive. Just a few hours from the district by car, parents based at agency headquarters or coming through for consultations or short courses will find it easy to attend their child’s sporting events, parents’ weekend and arrange short weekend stays.

If family members find themselves in a short-term evacuated status from their assigned post, placements at boarding schools are often possible. Whether parents are in Washington, D.C., abroad for an extended period or abroad for a short term, they will have the peace of mind knowing that their child is well taken care of.

College Prep Plus

Schools that are primarily boarding institutions will tend to offer more features and services for students whose parents live far away. An international student office, or a dean charged with the boarding student experience, is decisive in creating and maintaining programs that are important to a boarder. Weekend activities, health care, supervision, dormitory and food all head the list of topics of interest for boarding students, but especially for those for whom the campus is their home away from home.

In addition to faculty who live on campus to support the well-being of the boarders, these schools often have a “guidance team” that supports the needs of teenagers who negotiate a world with far more variables than their parents experienced.

A well-staffed nurse’s office with close ties to nearby pediatricians, departments of health and other health specialists is common. On-campus behavioral health counselors, chaplains, dorm staff and academic advisers support students through the inevitable ups and downs of teenage life. A college counselor is instrumental in helping every student navigate their higher education options.

In fact, academic preparation for college is perhaps the strongest feature of American boarding schools. Schools meet students where they are and provide the right measure of challenge and support to ensure their success. Honors, International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement courses are common, as are systems to support students who encounter difficulty.

Some schools have a dedicated department staffed with professional experts to support students who have learning differences or disabilities and who need structure, support and, most importantly, strategies to overcome their specific learning difference or disability.

An international student office, or a dean charged with the boarding student experience, is decisive in creating and maintaining programs that are important to a boarder.

Students can tailor parts of their academic program to their particular interests. Faculty who live on campus are always available to work with their students and are deeply invested in their success.

For these reasons, and many more, attractive college doors swing open for boarding school graduates each year.

An International Atmosphere

The Association of Boarding Schools (TABS) lists tens of thousands of students in member schools, most of them in the United States. Nearly half of the boarding students in these schools are from countries outside the United States, and many of the students who carry American passports are the children of parents working abroad.

The international “feel” of a boarding school campus offers a measure of familiarity to diplomatic dependents whose worldviews give them the ability to adapt to new surroundings quickly and easily and make friends anywhere.

“One of the big attractions was the diversity of the students,” offers one Foreign Service mother. “Living in a dorm for our daughter was fantastic. She didn’t lose that ‘home feeling,’ and she always got support.”

The student’s father reflects: “We’ve been overseas for 15 years and have experience with four international schools. We found that the quality of the teachers was hit or miss. At [boarding school], the teachers were all excellent. For children who need a little extra attention and support, the international schools weren’t very flexible and didn’t have that. But at [boarding school], our child had great support and really thrived.”

In an exhaustive study of boarding school students, graduates and their parents, TABS found boarding school students spent twice as much time outside of class with teachers and coaches than did students in public schools. Not surprisingly, 87 percent of boarding school alumni report being “very well prepared” for college.

Accessing Boarding Schools

TABS maintains a comprehensive website of member North American boarding schools to assist students and parents in navigating their options. Individual boarding schools have well-staffed admissions offices expert in responding to family inquiries and hosting families on campus or virtually. Admissions officers typically travel extensively, both domestically and internationally, to visit PK-8 schools, meet with educational consultants and attend school fairs. They are also adept at hosting virtual open houses and other virtual events for families that cannot visit campus.

The Department of State also offers excellent support to its families. If you are considering boarding school for your child, contact the Family Liaison Office’s Education and Youth Team. For information, email FLOAskEducation@state.gov or visit FLO’s website at state.gov/m/dghr/flo.

David H. Charlton is president of Church Schools in the (Episcopal) Diocese of Virginia, a position he has held for more than 20 years. The child of Episcopal missionaries, he lived all over the world before settling in Virginia and has extensive experience in the nonprofit education sector. He can be reached at david.charlton@ecsdv.org.

Randal E. Brown is the boarding admissions officer for Church Schools in the (Episcopal) Diocese of Virginia and a longtime independent school professional. He is also a retired lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard and an Iraq veteran. His two daughters are happy products of boarding school, as is he. He can be reached at randal.brown@ecsdv.org.