In order to accommodate public health and safety guidelines implemented amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, most schools are adapting their traditional open house event, which would typically include tours, meet-and-greets and presentations, to fit a digital format.
Families will need a computer, tablet or smartphone to participate, likely with Zoom access capabilities, and should expect to RSVP for open houses in advance.
Instead of flocking to school buildings, potential applicants will be transported to the school from the comfort of their own homes through video conferencing technology. This year, open houses will be much more personalized and tailored, with some schools setting up personal meetings for parents and students with faculty and administration.
Director of Admissions for Dominican Academy Madeleine Metzler says open house attendees will have the opportunity to pick and choose sessions that are most interesting to them. Current students at Dominican, along with faculty and staff, will be on-hand to answer questions in real-time.
“To be honest, the only thing different about this year's virtual open houses is that guests will not physically be in the building,” she noted. “However, prospective families will have access to the same high-quality information and experiences in the virtual realm.”
“So much about visiting a school is ‘feeling the vibe,’ and that's harder to do in a virtual setting,”she added, “but by no means impossible.”
It may be helpful for attendees to create a list of factors that align with their ideal school, such as size, location, student-faculty ratio, resources, educational philosophy, academic strengths or extracurriculars, and come prepared with relevant questions. Parents should inquire about how schools are meeting students' needs during the current crisis.
Families are also encouraged to pay attention to the level of enthusiasm displayed by presenters, as well as the quality of interactions between students, staff and faculty on screen. Do they seem genuine or forced?
“Parents should look for honesty and a school that feels like home,” said Kathleen Gaughan, assistant principal of student life at St. Agnes Academic High School. “You want to know if the students are happy, if they are academically challenged and what the daily life of a student is like. Parents should be open minded, come with questions and ask for clarification if the message is lost due to the virtual setting.”
Among the schools we spoke to, St. Mary’s College Preparatory High School was the only one that opted to forge ahead with in-person open houses, the first of which it hosted on September 27. In order control crowding, families were asked to sign up for tour slots. Visitors were required to wear masks and had their temperatures checked at the door.
“Our families were introduced to our safe and caring community in the same way our students experience it every day,” said Norma Stafford, the school’s director of Admissions. “The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Many families welcomed the chance to visit the school in person and get a real feel for our distinctive community.”
Stafford says the next open house will be in late October, and the school will also prepare five virtual meetings for families that prefer to remain remote.
After attending open houses, whether virtual or in-person, students and parents should follow up with admissions offices to ask any questions, and to find out if there are additional opportunities to get to know the school. Some institutions are offering private, in-person tours of their school buildings as a supplement. Others have virtual tour options, if one is not offered during the open house.
They also suggest keeping up with individual schools’ websites and social media accounts (YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, etc.) to stay up to date on admissions information.
Another big change in the admissions process this year is that the TACHS exam will be virtual as well, and it is possible that not all students will have access to the online test. Acknowledging the difficulties imposed by the pandemic on academic assessment as well, schools are aiming to maintain flexibility and fairness in review of application materials.
When it comes to choosing schools, experts overall agree that prospective applicants should focus on selecting schools that meet their individual needs as students and families. One strategy is to narrow down a list of schools that are the best fit and dive deep into those applications.
On top of communication, research, including looking through school materials, websites, course booklets and college placements, is key to making an informed decision. Is religious affiliation important? Single sex or co-ed? Most of all, families should determine where their students will ultimately be the most comfortable for the next four years.
“Your ‘gut’ feeling should not be overlooked,” warned Soraya Diaz Tamayo, director of Admissions at The Kew-Forest School. “How you felt in your interactions with various members of the community over the course of the admissions cycle, that intuitive reaction, is something to listen to in this process.”