Ten families with 15 students enrolled at Crestwell School in Fort Myers have said they cannot afford to return in the fall amid the worsening economic fallout of COVID-19.

Christian Life Academy started six years ago with six students in a single room in a church, and it has been growing ever since. This year, the little school on Florida’s southwest Gulf Coast reached 74 students in grades K-8, with 15 staffers, including seven full-time teachers. The ribbon cutting on the 5,000-square-foot building last August reflected a justified confidence that even more middle-class and working-class families would appreciate what the school had to offer.

Then COVID-19 happened.

Since Florida shuttered brick-and-mortar schools in mid-March, five Christian Life families have un-enrolled their children.

Two experienced layoffs. One saw a parent’s job shrink to part time. One decided to home school to save money.

Another handful of parents made it clear that while they love the school, the economic uncertainty means they can’t commit to re-enrolling.

“They’re waiting to find out exactly how much this is going to impact them,” said Principal Aaron Quaintance, a former public school teacher.

What does that mean for the school?

“I have faith that no matter what happens, God will provide and we will make it work,” he said. But if schools don’t physically re-open in the fall, “there is concern about families being forced to explore other options.”

With every passing week, private schools across Florida and beyond grow more uneasy.

Through Thursday, 73 percent of 634 Florida private schools that have responded to a survey from Step Up For Students (which hosts this blog) said they are experiencing declines in re-enrollment compared to last year. Seventy-three percent also said many parents who are not using state school choice scholarship are saying they may not be able to pay tuition next year. All in all, 58 percent said what they’re hearing from parents has them worried about their viability for the coming school year.

EdChoice got similar results when it surveyed private schools nationwide. Sixty-five percent said they were “extremely” or “very” worried about their families struggling financially. Fifty-one percent said they were “extremely” or “very” worried about losing enrollment next year. The survey was conducted April 1-17, just as waves of unemployment began crashing towards the worst job loss since the Great Depression.

In the past few weeks, 10 families with 15 students enrolled at Crestwell School in Fort Myers said they couldn’t afford to return in the fall, said head of school Tina Parsons. The school serves 158 students in grades K-8, with about 20 who use a state choice scholarship. Most of the Crestwell families are middle-class. Many own their own businesses, Parsons said. And they’re getting hammered.

“I’m putting a smile on my face and rolling up my sleeves and trying to get through it,” she said. “My concern is, if we’re not able to go back to school, how many more kids are going to drop out?”

Parsons said some parents have asked if she can guarantee that students will be physically in the school in the fall.

“I’ve told parents that I have to abide by my governor’s mandates,” she said. “But some are saying if they can’t have a real teacher in a real classroom … why not just go to public school and get essentially the same thing for free?”

To date, federal relief for education has been aimed primarily at public schools. The Paycheck Protection Program is some help to private schools, but it’s a short-term fix. The other relief buckets – GEER, ESSER, the “micro-grants” program – aren’t likely to yield more than marginal support. And yet, public school groups pushed back hard this week against an effort by the U.S. Department of Education to lay out a broader definition of “equitable services” for some of that relief.

The particularly daunting challenge for private schools isn’t much of a blip on the media radar (exceptions here and here). Ditto for the potentially big repercussions for public schools (see here and here).

Schools like Christian Life Academy may be especially vulnerable. It’s small. And most of its parents do not get state help for tuition. Florida has the broadest array of choice scholarships in America, but they are mostly limited to low-income students and students with special needs. About 40 percent of Christian Life students use those scholarships.

The school’s PPP loan will tide it over for two months. But after that?

“My faith is in God,” Quaintance said, “so this is an opportunity to grow my faith.”

Schools that were vulnerable before the pandemic are in an even bigger bind.

Nationally, at least eight Catholic dioceses have announced the closure and/or consolidation of Catholic schools in the past two months, including the Institute of Notre Dame, a 170-year-old college prep school in Maryland. Thursday, the Archdiocese of Newark announced the consolidation and closure of 10 schools, including one that is part of the highly regarded Cristo Rey Network.

“The process to identify affected schools and pursue this plan began before the COVID-19 crisis, and the decision is not directly linked to the pandemic,” the archdiocese said in a press release. “Archdiocesan officials noted, however, that the crisis has further weakened the economic position of the schools and other ministries.”

In Florida, some private schools are on edge, even if they have significant numbers of students on choice scholarships.

Kings Christian School in Miami has about 100 students in K-8, with 60 to 70 percent on scholarship. Principal Katherine de la Fe said no parents have said they can’t pay tuition going forward, but many have said they must wait until summer to determine if they can re-enroll.

“There are moments where I can feel overwhelmed,” de la Fe said. “No one’s gone through this before. I can’t predict the future, so I don’t know what kind of impact this will have. I think all of us feel this way.”

Trying to predict fall enrollment is “like throwing a dart against the wall,” said Rod Jackson, superintendent of St. Luke’s Lutheran School in Central Florida. But as unemployment surges “we know people are hurting,” he said. “And that has us very concerned about what next year is going to look like.”

The school has 575 students in grades K-8, about 30 percent of them on choice scholarships. Jackson said St. Luke’s is big enough and established enough not to have to worry about possible closure. But how big a hit it takes, he said, will hinge on whether it can physically re-open in the fall.

If it can? Maybe a 10 to 15 percent drop in enrollment. That’s a lot, Jackson said, but “we’ll be all right.”

If it can’t? Then enrollment could drop by twice that, he said.

In the Tampa Bay area, Erin Ciulla said her K-12 school with 65 students, Odessa Christian, has already heard from the parents of 10 students who are unsure if they can enroll in the fall.

“These are people where this is their school home, their kids are thriving,” she said. The thought of leaving had them “broken up.”

Ciulla said most of her families will stick with Odessa Christian if their children can physically return to it. But closure that extends late into this calendar year could change the equation. At that point, she said, “they’d probably seek out something they don’t have to pay for.”

“We will continue to carry out our mission no matter what,” Ciulla added. “It could look significantly different than it did in February, but, even if we only have five students, we will continue.”

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