Anxious private schools in limbo while additional federal relief on hold

Ron Matus

St. Andrew Catholic School in Orlando applied for enough federal relief funding to cover two months of payroll for 51 employees.

Private schools across America are in a state of uncertainty after a $349 billion federal relief program for millions of small businesses and nonprofits ran out of funding Thursday and Congress failed, for now, to agree on a plan to keep it rolling.

The Paycheck Protection Program, part of the $2 trillion pandemic rescue package, maxed out 13 days after it began accepting applications and banks began approving some 1.6 million forgivable loans.

A plan to replenish the fund, perhaps with another $250 billion, still seems likely. So private schools hoping for federal assistance should not hesitate to apply.

It may be the most help they’ll get.

Private schools bleed enrollment during economic downturns and, in this case, are already facing tuition losses and other financial challenges. The other federal relief streams targeted to education appear unlikely to yield them more than a trickle. The PPP is no panacea, but it can offer a short-term respite – and a morale boost for the turbulence ahead.

St. Andrew Catholic School, in the predominantly black Orlando community of Pine Hills, applied for enough funding to cover two months of payroll for 51 employees.

Finding out the application was on hold was “disheartening,” said principal Latrina Peters-Gipson, whose school was in the national spotlight in 2017 when newly inaugurated President Trump paid a visit. “If we don’t get this loan, we may start having to lay some of our (35) instructional staff off. Which would be devastating. They have been very committed and dedicated to the students of the community.”

All but five of St. Andrew’s 325 students use state school choice scholarships for low-income students to cover most of tuition. But the school still relies on significant support from the local parish and business community, neither of which can contribute what they did in the past. The school also anticipates students leaving as more and more parents are laid off from jobs and uprooted from their homes. More than 50 percent of St. Andrew’s parents work at Walt Disney World, Peters-Gipson said; another 20 to 30 percent work in the hotel industry.

“St. Andrew, for my babies, this is their home,” Peters-Gipson said. “I’ve been trying to tell my parents to just breathe, let’s see what happens. So with this loan, I can know the school can be taken care of, and I can tell my babies their home is taken care of.”

Thursday’s sobering developments came just as some private schools learned they had been approved for the loans.

The PPP offers forgivable loans to small businesses and nonprofits with fewer than 500 employees, including private schools and charter schools. The loan amount is up to 250 percent of an employer’s average monthly payroll, with a $10 million cap. If the employer maintains that payroll for eight weeks, the loan is forgiven. The loans can also be used for interest on mortgages, rent and utilities.

It’s unclear how many private schools applied for the funding, but it’s likely hundreds did from Florida alone. The Sunshine State has nearly 2,700 private schools serving 380,000 students, including more than 2,000 schools that participate in that state’s robust array of private school choice and education choice scholarships. Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog, administers four of those programs.

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