If summer 2020 was the season parents, students, and educators considered the cost of the pandemic, fall will be the time families seek value.
Even in April, just weeks after most school buildings in the U.S. closed and instruction moved online — with uneven results — more than two-thirds of parents in a Pew Research survey were “very” or “somewhat” concerned that their child was falling behind. This was a sign parents already were counting the cost of the interrupted school year. More recent surveys confirm parents remain concerned.
So, with some of the nation’s largest school districts, including Houston, Atlanta, Broward County, and Baltimore County to name a few offering online only instruction this fall, parents dissatisfied with their child’s experience are looking for alternatives. As with any learning option, choosing a virtual school is different from being forced to attend one.
The latest education response to the pandemic involves parents forming “learning pods” with their neighbors and hiring educators to instruct students in small numbers, but private schools may still find a place.
“We want to make sure we are providing value and what our parents are coming to us for,” says Michelle Brown, Chief Development Officer for Independence Mission Schools, a group of 15 Catholic schools in Philadelphia.
As explained on redefinED and by the Cato Institute, the pandemic threatened private schools in Florida and around the country. Approximately 100 independent schools already have closed nationwide according to Cato. Yet as the first day of the new school year approaches, and students across the U.S. are assigned to districts with only a virtual option, private schools may still survive.
In Columbus, Ohio, Catholic high school enrollment increased 4% this summer as the private schools plan to open either fully in-person or with hybrid in-person operations. Some Catholic schools in the area have waiting lists, while local news says there are 20% more incoming kindergarteners for Catholic schools in the coming school year “than there were eighth-grade graduates from middle schools last year.”
North Carolina school officials say there has been “an uptick in applications, calls, and emails” about the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program, a K-12 private school scholarship option, while waiting lists are growing for some private schools, especially in the younger grades.
Earlier this week, the Washington Post said parents are leaving public schools in Washington, D.C., for private schools because they expect that “private schools will eventually be able to switch to in-person learning quicker than public schools.” The commitment to in-person classes has “fueled an uptick in enrollment inquiries from families who can afford to make the switch.”
In Philadelphia, Brown and Independence staff have reviewed guidance from a wide range of health institutions and says Independence plans to open with a hybrid model. Her schools are surveying families now, though, to determine if parents are ready for more in-person instruction, especially for preschool and kindergarten students. She explains that some Independence students take public transportation or district buses to school, and with Philadelphia schools also using a hybrid model, student transportation will be limited.
“That will be a part of the survey,” Brown says, “how do they get their kids to school and what is the alternative.” It would not make sense to open fully in-person if not all students could attend right away, she explains.
Thus, serving families and students is the priority, which should not go unnoticed by parents during the COVID summer. Brown recognizes that “many of our students have siblings and that our families have the option to leave our school and go to a district school,” driving Independence to “provide consistency for families.”
Whether these stories are just isolated examples from Philadelphia, Ohio, Washington, D.C., and beyond, or indications of a private school resurgence remain to be seen. Should private school waiting lists grow, however, it will be difficult to argue that independent schools have a message that works: Add value.