For Jennifer Rakstad and her husband Michael Wallace, “it was in some ways an easy decision and in some ways it was very difficult.”

Rakstad and Wallace are dedicated believers in public schools. Rakstad was even head of the local school council at South Loop Elementary, in the Chicago Public School system, where the couple’s daughter Eleanore had attended since kindergarten, and was about to enter eighth grade.

But when CPS announced it would start school entirely remotely, with no in-person classes, “it just clicked,” Rakstad said, to find something else. E-learning in the spring, when all Illinois schools shifted to remote education due to the coronavirus pandemic, “just did not work well” for their daughter. So this week, Eleanore begins eighth grade at Roycemore School, a small private institution in Evanston. “It seemed Roycemore was really set up” for what Eleanore needed, Rakstad said.

Brianna Sylver and her husband Adriano Galvao made the same decision for their daughter Livia, now a Roycemore third grader. Livia spent kindergarten through second grade at Orrington Elementary School in Evanston/Skokie District 65.

Livia’s parents went through the same decision-making process as did Eleanore’s. “We intentionally moved to Evanston to be part of the public school system,” Sylver said. “And we wanted a neighborhood school. Now we’re in neither.”

But when District 65 said it would have the first month of school by computer, with the chance that the entire semester, and perhaps entire year would be taught remotely, Sylver and Galvao started looking for a school where Livia could go in person. Roycemore became their choice.

Livia “felt isolated socially” with e-learning in the spring, Sylver said. “She does need a structured schedule and interaction with other kids.” Sylver and Galvao were happy with Roycemore’s small classes (the school only has 213 students in pre-kindergarten through grade 12), and Sylver said she and her husband were “impressed with how Roycemore had thought out” education in a pandemic, with plans to switch to e-learning in case the spread of COVID-19 intensified in the community. In fact, about a quarter of Roycemore’s families have opted for remote learning from the start.

Rakstad and Wallace, and Sylver and Galvao, realize their opportunity to switch to an expensive private school is far from typical. Very far. Their own finances gave them more options than most parents will ever dream of. Even though Roycemore is far more diverse than many private schools (45% students of color), and even though half of Roycemore’s families receive some financial aid, tuition and fees start at around $24,000 for first grade, and increase each grade year after that.

“Oh, we are definitely fortunate to have the ability to do this,” Sylver said. Rakstad put it more bluntly: “We’re incredibly privileged.” Still, her other child, a son, is remaining at a CPS high school, because remote education works for him.

So in the end, each family has to decide what is best for their children, within that family’s means. “I very much have grappled with this,” Sylver said. “But when the system does not provide a solution,” it became time to look elsewhere.

Roycemore is actually dealing with many of the same issues as are parents. Applications are up 34% this year, the school says, as families look for alternatives to remote learning, or perhaps for a remote learning plan they think is better structured. But the school has also lost several families, as those parents worry about potential loss of income due to COVID-related job or business cuts.

All of this, of course, is not what young children think about. Livia just wants to get back into a real classroom, and make real friends. “She’s so thrilled,” Sylver said, “that she’s been asking me for three weeks, can I go today?”

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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