With the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year upon schools, the impact of COVID-19 on school reopening is just beginning to unfold. In an effort to understand the reopening plans and financial outlook of Christian schools for the fall, ACSI conducted a follow-up to its earlier spring survey with all U.S. schools. Similar to the findings of the spring survey, the current survey found that Christian schools are continuing to respond nimbly and adapt creatively to thrive in the face of ongoing challenge. While this blog post provides an overview of the research findings, readers are encouraged to download and read the full report here.
The survey was fielded electronically in late July 2020. All of ACSI’s member schools in the United States were invited to participate via email. A total of 548 unique schools responded to the survey for a response rate of 30%. Overall, the responding schools were fairly representative of ACSI membership across a number of demographic factors. This includes geographic distribution, with 25% of responding schools located in the Western U.S., 24% in the Central U.S., and 41% in the Eastern U.S. Respondents were also representative of ACSI membership in terms of school size by enrollment (with 48.4% of schools enrolling 0-200 students, 28% enrolling 201-399 students, 15.9% enrolling 400-699 students, and 7.7% enrolling 700 or more students).
The survey asked about schools’ current plans for reopening school at the point of administration (in late July). The vast majority of schools (88.2%) planned for a physical reopening of their campuses in the fall. The majority of schools with grades in the K-12 range (54%) were planning to offer on-campus instruction with an option for distance learning (e.g., in case of illness, health condition, or family preference). Over a quarter (26.8%) planned to offer on-campus instruction only. When asked about their timeline for reopening, 18% of schools indicated they planned to delay the start of the school year, while the majority (82%) were planning an on-time opening. For schools with attached early education programs, the majority of those programs (58.6%) were slated to open for on-campus instruction as usual. An additional third (35.9%) of early education programs were planning to be open, but with significant modifications (such as changes to scheduling, number of classes, etc.) due to COVID-19.
Influences on Planning
The majority of respondents (54.7%) indicated that almost all parents desired their students to return to campus. Just over an additional third (35.2%) reported that most parents preferred a return to campus. An additional 8.2% indicated that parents were split on the issue of returning to campus, and less than 2% reported that most parents did not desire a physical return to campus. The survey also asked about the influence of various input sources in schools’ formulation of reopening plans. State guidance, health department guidance, and teacher/staff and parent input were reported as the most influential, whereas student input was least influential (qualitative comments indicated most schools did not seek student input).
Survey respondents provided data on modifications to scheduling, health and safety, space usage, programs and events, district transportation, special education and student support, and testing.
- Instructionally, the most frequently cited modifications were student cohorts, in which students stay together at most or all times during the day (88.2% of schools); concurrent instruction, in which classes are attended simultaneously by students on campus and via distance learning (42.1%); different start times each day for specific grades or cohorts of students (16%); and alternating day or week schedules for students (8.3%).
- A number of modifications to space usage were featured in Christian schools’ plans to reopen school. The most frequently cited were modifications to campus gatherings, such as chapels, back-to-school nights, etc. (94.5% of schools); limiting visitors to campus (91.6%); re-arranging or re-purposing physical space (90%); modifications to the lunch schedule/program (87%); and designated/special routing of student traffic through buildings (65%).
- Modifications to health and safety procedures were also reported by schools in their reopening plans. Close to all schools (97.2%) planned to require handwashing and/or other personal hygiene protocols, as well as expand or enhance cleaning (94.5%) and require regular temperature checks and/or health checklists for students and staff (94.3%). Illness protocols (i.e., requiring testing, notification, and contact tracing) were also planned by 81.5% of responding schools. And in terms of personal protective equipment (e.g., masks), 87.2% of schools were planning use of PPE for teachers and staff, and 76.9% for students.
- Schools reported a number of different modifications to programs and events at their campuses. These included modifications to student outings like field trips and service activities (91.9%); to the athletic program and/or team sports (74.6%); to the performing arts, including band, orchestra, and choir (69.9%); and to the school calendar, i.e., by extending or rescheduling planned breaks (35.8%).
- The current survey asked participants about the availability of special education and student support services in their Fall 2020 plans. The same question was also asked on the previous survey, regarding services during distance learning in Spring 2020. The majority of schools (56.9%) reported planning to offer the “same” level of support as pre-COVID-19 for Fall 2020; this is up significantly from Spring 2020, when only 22.8% of schools held services steady at the same level, whereas 32.8% reported decreasing levels of support during the spring. This suggests that special education and student support services may be returning to “normal” for this fall at those schools which offer them (notably, nearly a third of schools do not offer such services).
- Finally, the survey asked about the impact of COVID-19 on student transportation. Over two-thirds (69.3%) of responding schools indicated that their students did not receive or use district-provided transportation. The remaining 30.7% reported a mixed picture of district transportation plans, with 13.2% reporting that some or all of students’ districts will be providing busing, 12% reporting that districts had not yet announced their plans, 3% reporting that some or all districts refuse to provide busing, and 2.6% of schools reporting a mix of district decisions to provide or not provide busing. Out of all responding schools, only 3% indicated they would arrange or otherwise provide alternate transportation, should districts not provide busing to students.
The survey asked schools about the impact of COVID-19 on their staffing levels as they plan for the 2020-2021 school year. Schools most frequently reported that they are keeping the same overall FTE for the coming year (48.5% of schools), while 28.9% reported an increase in overall FTE and 22.7% reported a decrease in FTE. The survey also inquired about schools’ expectations for teachers and staff to return physically to campus, and whether and how employees might be allowed to work from home. A majority of schools (62.1%) indicated they are requiring all teachers and staff to return to work on campus when it is open. An additional 22.5% reported that while they expect all teachers and staff to return, they will allow those with documented medical or health concerns to work from home (e.g., via distance learning). The remaining 15.4% reported that they will also work with teachers and staff who are uncomfortable returning to campus to allow them to work from home.
Financial Impact and Outlook
The survey asked respondents about the financial impact of COVID-19 and the outlook for the 2020-2021 school year. Findings in this area were as follows:
- Just over half of schools (52.8%) reported decreased enrollment for Fall 2020, with the most frequently cited range of enrollment decrease being 6-10%. For the 25.8% of schools that reported increases in enrollment, many provided qualitative data that indicated the following reasons for those increases: lower classroom sizes; local public schools not providing in-person learning for Fall 2020; and nimble transition of Christian schools to distance learning in Spring 2020. These schools also reported increases in admissions inquiries and wait lists.
- The vast majority of schools reported that they are not offering tuition discounts for either on-campus instruction (86.1%) or distance learning (73.1%). A slightly higher number of schools (11.2%) will offer a discount for distance learning than for on-campus learning (9.8%) in the fall.
- Schools most frequently reported that their operating budgets have increased for 2020-2021. Although the survey did not gather data on the reasons for this increase, it is possible that additional technology investments and upgrades—which were planned by over two-thirds of schools (72.1%)—are a contributing factor behind budget increases (40.5% of schools).
- A majority of schools (50.5%) reported that financial aid levels were staying the same as compared to the previous year, while over a third (36.4%) indicated plans to increase financial aid for 2020-2021. Another 5.1% of schools were decreasing aid, while 8.1% of schools reported not offering financial aid.
- At the time of the survey, a strong majority of schools (83.7%) indicated they had received funds through the Payroll Protection Program of the CARES Act. Close to half of schools (46.2%) also reported participation in Equitable Services programs through the CARES Act, with another 28.2% not participating and 25.6% unsure about their participation.
- Just over a third of schools (34.1%) reported that their fundraising efforts would remain at the same level as previous years, while approximately another third (31.7%) indicated they were unsure of their plans with regard to changes in fundraising efforts. The remaining schools indicated their efforts would either increase (22.6%) or decrease (13.6%) this year.
The quantitative and qualitative survey data revealed three emerging themes which, taken together, characterize the Fall 2020 outlook for Christian schools and their reopening plans. These are: 1) Christian schools are open and ready for business; 2) Christian schools are delivering on their value proposition; and 3) Christian schools will need to prioritize financial sustainability as they look to the future—now more than ever.
Open and Ready for Business
The current survey shows that Christian schools continue to adjust nimbly to ongoing challenges posed by COVID-19 for Fall 2020, with a clear majority planning for a physical (88.2%) and on-time (82%) return to campus. These plans are highly responsive to the desire of families, with close to 90% of schools reporting that almost all or most families desire a physical return to campus. Even with a physical return planned, nearly two-thirds (61.4%) of schools are offering a distance learning option or component, which signals schools’ ongoing commitment to remaining nimble and planning for contingencies in the face of COVID-19 related uncertainty.
Delivering on their Value Proposition
Qualitative data collected through the survey indicated that while most Christian schools will be open and ready for business in the fall, local schools in other sectors have mostly moved to distance learning or are limiting the number of days students are physically on campus. Many Christian schools responding to the survey reported an uptick in admissions inquiries and new enrollments by families who were attracted to Christian schools’ readiness for an in-person return in the fall.
These findings suggest that Christian schools’ value proposition related to providing a high-quality educational experience has been made clearer to the public through the challenges of COVID-19. Delivering on that value proposition has likely been aided by the smaller size of most Christian schools, their flexibility in staffing and scheduling, and their overall responsiveness and accountability to families as private schools. For Christian schools, reopening school—and doing so effectively and safely—is not optional, but essential to the children and families they serve.
Prioritizing Financial Sustainability
The increase in enrollment at a quarter of Christian schools (25.8%) is heartening—especially given the qualitative data attributing much of that increase to schools’ nimble response in reopening school as well as to their unique value proposition. However, this finding is tempered by aggregate data from the survey which suggest continued financial challenges lie ahead for many Christian schools. Given the data on enrollment and operating budgets across the sector, the data suggest that schools’ revenue in 2020-2021 is most likely to decline, while their operating expenses are most likely to increase.
Again, looking at the data across all schools, this picture is further complicated by the likelihood that fundraising efforts will not be able to fill these gaps. This is because less than a quarter of schools (22.6%) report plans to increase fundraising efforts, while nearly half (47.7%) are staying the same level or are decreasing their efforts, and a staggering near-third (31.7%) do not have plans in place for fundraising as the new school year approaches. Although certainly the financial picture at the individual school level will vary, these sector-level findings suggest the importance of prioritizing financial sustainability in the months ahead.
Sound financial practices in budgeting, management, and fundraising are essential to school viability, regardless of market changes. However, in times of ongoing flux and uncertainty, schools’ ability to thrive may increasingly depend on innovation and reaching new markets. Along these lines, data from the spring survey revealed that close to half of schools (48.6%) were considering added blended learning to their offerings, and over a third (35.4%) were considering offering a fully virtual program or programs as part of a hybrid model. Qualitative data from the two surveys indicated that some schools are also looking at efforts like merging with other Christian schools or programmatically supporting homeschool groups or co-ops. These and similar approaches can increase access to Christian education, help develop new income streams, and foster collaboration and cost-sharing among schools.
Christian schools have been experiencing challenges to sustainability for more than a decade, but COVID-19 is likely to accelerate and deepen schools’ need to take significant steps toward rethinking and reimagining their financial models. Paradoxically, for Christian education to be sustained into the future, the way Christian education looks and functions will need to change. This is because sustainability does not mean finding a way to continue current practices into the future, as much as that might be preferred. Rather, sustainability means ensuring the school’s mission continues into the future, which likely will require that Christian schools—and the financial models by which they operate—look different from the past or today. To this end, ACSI’s new Sustainability Initiative, which fields in 2020-2021, will study the question of how schools move toward innovative models that lend themselves to missional sustainability, both during the uncertainty of COVID-19 and beyond.
About the Authors
Dr. Lynn Swaner is the chief strategy and innovation officer at ACSI, where she leads initiatives and develops strategies to address compelling questions and challenges facing Christian education. Prior to joining ACSI, she served as a Christian school administrator and a graduate professor of education. Dr. Swaner serves as a Cardus Senior Fellow and is the lead editor of the books MindShift: Catalyzing Change in Christian Education and PIVOT: New Directions for Christian Education, co-author of Bring It to Life: Christian Education and the Transformative Power of Service-Learning, and editor of the ACSI blog. She received her EdD from Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @LynnSwaner1.
Dr. Charlotte Marshall Powell is an independent researcher who has served on staff previously at ACSI research. Her background includes a decade of research examining individual and community well-being in academic, corporate, and church communities. Deeply rooted in Christian values, she has an ability to lead research projects strategically and empathetically. Prior to joining ACSI, she served as an academic researcher and professor of psychology. She can be reached via email at email@example.com.