Private Schools vs. COVID-19
Private Schools vs. COVID-19

Where should private schools focus as they struggle to maintain enrollment?

When U.S. schools shut down in March 2020, just before Spring Break, there was an initial mad dash to move classes online as quickly as possible. In the rush, many parents, students and even the schools and teachers themselves felt that the execution of last spring’s distanced education was lacking on many fronts. Parents and kids had difficulty accessing the information, teachers who were not savvy with the tools didn’t fare well from the “crash courses” they had received, and the bar for academics/participation was set so low that many parents simply gave up without consequence.

The hope, for those who realized early that the pandemic would rage on past the beginning of the fall semester, was that the summer would give everyone a chance to regroup and rebuild and rethink online learning as schools moved to hybrid or fully online models in the long term. While some effort was certainly made, much of these months was spent debating whether there was a safe way for students to return. The strain of closing physical schools on parents and the economy is so heavy that even some desperate options have been considered.

And yet as the August “finish line” approaches for these debates and considerations, many schools are moving to a hybrid model to accommodate staff, teachers and students who do not yet feel comfortable returning, and most elementary and secondary schools are at least starting the new semester entirely online. After last spring’s debacle, many parents are understandably questioning whether returning to this model in the fall will be worth the time, energy or money that they might be spending, and this will negatively affect the schools’ bottom lines.

For public schools, the competition is homeschooling, which has long-established and often easier-to-follow requirements. If they lose enrollment, they lose funding. But for private schools, the pressure is even hotter: they are competing with “free” options as they, too, move to an online model and lose the appeal of the smaller classrooms and superior facilities that families pay premium prices for, often higher prices than college!



Some private schools have already shuttered, and the rest are struggling desperately as enrollment numbers fall. In some cases, the impact of the pandemic on family budgets is the issue, and schools have no control over that. But they can focus on how to keep their communities, enrollment and standards intact through this storm by asking, “Why do people choose private school?” and finding ways to accommodate those needs within the new models.

Below, we have outlined some ideas we have for private schools to consider, based on the reasons parents chose private school for their children in the first place:

  • Smaller class sizes. In a recent survey, this was one of the main reasons parents indicated for choosing private schools over public. Without a classroom, the benefit of this is seemingly lost, but in a hybrid or online model, it can be just as big of an advantage. Why do people prefer small classroom sizes? Because they want their children to receive more individualized attention from their teachers and to know their classmates.

    This can still apply to a hybrid or online model. For one thing, smaller classroom sizes make it easier to safely create in-person, physical group meetings while maintaining a safe distance. Additionally, teachers are juggling fewer students and can afford more one-on-one or small group attention, be it through Zoom, on a personal phone call or a distanced session. Schools should consider ways their teachers can “go the extra mile” to provide the personal attention that parents believe they have paid for.

  • Resources and networks that set students up for success. Without stepping into a building abuzz with activity and meetings, it is easy for both families and staff to forget that maintaining outside resources and connections to facilitate student success – especially at the high school level – is just as important now as it ever was, and perhaps more so.

    Private schools should let families know that they remain active in their relationships with colleges, service opportunities, businesses and any other resources that can expand the network and better prepare students for their next steps.

  • Higher academic standards. Simply saying, “These will be maintained in our online/hybrid models this fall,” is not sufficient when parents are deciding whether to continue investing in private school. Parents will be asking how and why academic standards at private school are any better than public school now that classrooms/smaller class sizes are out the window.

    Are there training courses teachers are taking to improve the curriculum? Are there learning tools the school has invested in? How will students be held accountable? Will there be synchronous learning? And if so, how will teachers keep students engaged, interested and learning at optimal levels? The more answers a private school can provide, the better they can earn the cost of tuition.

  • A sense of community. Community means many different things. On the one hand, the size of private schools has traditionally meant that students, parents and staff all know one another at least by sight and probably by name and reputation. Parents at this time should feel that communication has increased, that the entire community is working together through this crisis, and that they are part of something that will thrive in the face of hardship.

    But schools also have opportunities to reciprocate in that community above and beyond what a normal “business” might do. Families that are negatively impacted might be allowed to defer tuition for a year, enrollment might extend to temporary partial scholarships to help balance this move since “classrooms” are virtual, and other fundraisers and acts of service among struggling families should be encouraged.

Private schools are known for setting the bar a little bit higher, which is why many parents choose to pay the high cost of tuition when they could rely on their tax dollars for their children’s education. COVID-19 has not changed the motivations behind that choice, but it will affect how private schools strategically meet the expectations of families who might enroll. Above all else, businesses such as these need to remember to communicate every idea, every strategy and every accomplishment to the families involved now that these families cannot physically “see” where their dollars are going.

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