Some Private Schools Win Families, Others Lose Them in Coronavirus Pandemic

Victoria Flores-Argue with her daughter Alejandra, who is switching from a private school in New York City to a public kindergarten in New Milford, Conn.

Photo: Peter Argue

At the private Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles, new videoconferencing cameras will let faculty simultaneously teach students tuning in from home along with those learning on campus.

So far, its officials estimate the school has spent well into six figures on steps to operate safely during the pandemic, once California authorities give the green light for campuses to reopen.

Harvard-Westlake is one of many private K-12 schools with the money and flexibility to adjust. Some are pitching tents for learning outdoors, installing Plexiglas barriers and adding musical instruments so children don’t have to share.

The pandemic is throwing the start of school into chaos across the country. For the nation’s private K-12 schools, it is creating opportunities for some, threatening the survival of others, and raising concerns about growing inequities in access to education.

The science building at Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles. School officials estimate it has spent well into the six figures on steps that would allow it to reopen safely.

Photo: Harvard-Westlake School

While some private schools see rising enrollment, others have lost students as families move out of virus hot spots, hit financial troubles or won’t pay tuition that can top $45,000 a year for classes that could end up online long-term if there is an outbreak.

“There are a lot of independent schools that are really struggling, and we will see some smaller schools close and merge,” said Bo Lauder, principal of Friends Seminary in Manhattan, which expects full enrollment in the coming school year.

The Archdiocese of New York announced last month that 20 Catholic schools must shut this summer due to the pandemic’s toll on the economy.

And Brooklyn Friends School told parents this month that an enrollment decline, more requests for financial aid, safety investments and technology expenses tied to Covid-19 led to an operational deficit that required painful layoffs. Brooklyn Friends officials said the school remains committed to providing “a values-led and lived experience as well as an education infused with a determined mind and heart towards positive change in the world.”

More fortunate private schools have seen a flurry of new interest from families who think private schools will be better equipped than public districts suffering budget cuts to provide robust instruction, given their resources, space and nimbleness in adapting.

The Ross School in East Hampton, N.Y., for example, has welcomed an influx of new students as New York City residents decamped to their weekend homes. In preschool programs through sixth grade, it expects 175 students, more than doubling from 73 a year ago. It put up 15 tents for studying outside in good weather.

The Ross School in East Hampton, N.Y. put up 15 tents to space out students. Many new students’ families have moved from New York City.

Photo: Ross School

At Harvard-Westlake, Laura Ross, associate head of school, said she hopes the steady enrollment is due to families’ trust that it can deliver strong academics, “but sadly it’s probably also a larger comment on how difficult this is for under-resourced public schools.”

About 5.7 million children are projected to attend private elementary, middle, and high schools this fall, or about 10% of the nation’s students, federal data show.

Nationwide, 40% of independent schools planned to open fully in-person this fall, 19% fully online, and 41% in a hybrid model, according to a survey of members by the National Association of Independent Schools at the end of July. By contrast, most of the country’s 20 largest public districts expect to start with only remote instruction.

Such numbers are changing rapidly: Some private schools that anticipated opening classrooms shifted in recent weeks to online-only starts. Some aim to bring lower grades on campus more days than upper grades, believing that older students can be left home alone more easily and can handle in-depth independent projects online.

While public school principals get reopening rules from their districts, private school leaders say they must navigate conflicting health recommendations, fast-changing community infection rates and worries about insufficient testing capacity. They are taking a range of approaches, depending on their location, size, layout, risk tolerance and other factors.

“It’s like in Tolstoy: Every unhappy family is unique,” said Steven Solnick, head of Calhoun School in Manhattan, paraphrasing the opening line of the novel “Anna Karenina.”

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Calhoun announced Monday it would delay its in-person opening until Oct. 7 and start remotely instead, due to what it called unacceptably long waits for getting Covid-19 test results, which can sometimes take two weeks. The school said if it opened the campus in September, it would have to either send small groups into quarantine while awaiting test results every time a student gets a fever or sore throat, or gamble that a low overall prevalence rate means a symptomatic student is unlikely to have Covid-19.

“The former course would be chaotic and frightening to our students,” the school told parents in a letter. “The latter course increases risk.”

Calhoun says it expects about 600 students this fall, a roughly 10% drop from last year, largely because of families leaving the city. Some expressed hopes of re-enrolling in the future, officials said.

Other private school parents balk at hefty tuition for programs that might end up as a series of Zoom classes if the virus surges.

“To pay 52 grand for blended, maybe all online, maybe not, we didn’t feel it was worth it,” said Victoria Flores-Argue, a CBD entrepreneur. She canceled plans to send her daughter to an independent school for girls in Manhattan that offered a hybrid model. Instead, Alejandra will start kindergarten in a public school with a hybrid approach in New Milford, Conn., where the family’s weekend home became their full-time one during the spring.

Some aspects of private schools make it easier for them to adapt to the pandemic. Many have more space and teachers per student than public schools, giving them more options for grouping children in small cohorts to limit exposure to the virus. They usually aren’t unionized, making it simpler to change staff roles and require extra training.

Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, said the crisis highlighted inequities, such as disparities in access to technology.

She saw anecdotal evidence that private schools put more emphasis on having teachers give live instruction during remote learning, and expressed concern that many public districts’ easing of grading policies would hurt students’ college applications.

“We’ve seen a lot of districts try to be kind to students, which is understandable, but I worry about colleges’ views of students’ long-term prospects,” Ms. Lake said. “Colleges come to trust some private schools to say their grades mean something.”

Melanie Weinraub is sending her children, who are 10 and 13 years old, to class full-time at Elisabeth Morrow School in Englewood, N.J. She feels bonding with teachers face-to-face is invaluable, and the 14-acre campus enables small groups to spread out.

“Everybody has some qualms,” Ms. Weinraub said. “But I’m comfortable with the risks we’d be taking.”

Write to Leslie Brody at [email protected]

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