MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: It’s Thursday the 10th of September, 2020. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Megan Basham.
MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown. First up: Christian schools and COVID-19.
Millions of students finished the last school year online. Now as a new school year begins, many public schools are still having classes either completely online or splitting between online and in-person instruction.
BASHAM: Online education fatigue is leading to a surge of parents choosing to homeschool this year, but it’s also prompted a boost in attendance at some Christian schools. WORLD’s Sarah Schweinsberg reports.
SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: Heading into the 2020 school year, Wilmington Christian School expected to take an enrollment hit. Roger Erdvig heads the school in Hockessin, Delaware.
ERDVIG: So from 330, we downgraded to 307 coming into the school year. That was our expectation. With a private school tuition, we assumed that a lot of people would have serious challenges being able to continue to pay.
Losing 7 percent of the student body may not sound like a lot, but for Christian schools that operate on tight margins those losses add up. Erdvig says the school prepared for a lean year.
ERDVIG: We cut everything we possibly could in preparation for that kind of a downturn in enrollment.
But then a surprise. Instead of families leaving, they stayed, and more came. This year, the school enrolled 341 students.
ERDVIG: So we actually have surpassed our enrollment projections from pre COVID-19 and significantly surpassed by 30 students our COVID-19 projections.
Lynn Swaner is the chief strategy and innovation officer at the Association of Christian Schools International. Swaner says a surprising number of the group’s 2,300 Christian schools are seeing enrollment grow this year.
SWANER: We had a full quarter of schools actually reporting an increase in enrollment.
Swaner says half the group’s member schools are experiencing a decline, but it’s less than expected.
SWANER: The highest range of that drop is about 6 to 10 percent.
The other quarter of the member pie have student numbers holding steady.
Jeff Walton directs the American Association of Christian Schools.. He says its more than 700 members have had similar experiences. Many schools reported that a portion of last year’s study body left to homeschool. But…
WALTON: The really interesting piece is that most of those schools have not experienced an overall decline in enrollment. And many of our state leaders are this week saying, actually, we’re probably going to stay even and might even go up.
Jeff Walton and Lynn Swaner say that steady enrollment and even enrollment growth is due to several factors. The first: public school families are looking for in-person education for their children.
Most Christian schools are offering that.
Michael Phillips leads Bay City Christian School in Green Bay, Wisconsin. He says the school felt the only way it could fulfill its mission was by meeting in person.
PHILLIPS: We’re supposed to be doing the spiritual, the academic, the the social and the physical needs of our students. And we decided we can do that best if we’re going to be in school five days a week.
To do that, the school did the second important factor. It worked with families and staff to implement health precautions and guidelines that most were comfortable with.
PHILLIPS: We have plastic shields around their desks. When they come into school, we take their temperature, you know, they wash their hands and just kind of preliminary things like that. But then they have to be in their mask.
Dan Peterson is the head of school at Regents School of Austin in Austin, Texas. It typically enrolls about a thousand students. This year, the school kept most of those students and added more.
PETERSON: We actually are at the largest enrollment we’ve ever had in the history of the school.
Peterson credits that boost to families looking for in-school learning, the school’s new coronavirus precautions … and a third factor: its online-only option.
PETERSON: We provided an at-home option really for medically challenged families that had a concern, maybe a grandparent that might be living in their home that was more compromised to COVID-19. Around 50 students are actually choosing the at-home experience.
Finally, many Christian schools are providing coronavirus financial relief funds for struggling families.
Last spring, Wilmington Christian School raised an additional $50,000 for families needing tuition assistance.
Headmaster Roger Erdvig says that helped some families hang on.
ERDVIG: We were able to, through an application process, help families who may not have qualified for standard tuition assistance. They qualified for COVID relief, and we were able to give them one time grants to help them.
While the enrollment numbers are encouraging for many Christian schools, budgets are still tight. Many have had to hire additional janitors and pay for new air filters, plexiglass, and other health equipment.
But, Regent’s Dan Peterson says school’s in session. And right now that’s what matters.
PETERSON: We’re on this huge whitewater rafting trip. And we don’t know the rapids that are ahead for us. But we’ve left shore. We’re paddling, and it’s going to be really exhilarating.
Reporting for WORLD, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg.