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Private schools prove reopening learning institutions safely can be done

Private schools prove reopening learning institutions safely can be done
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Weeks into the new school year, many urban public schools serving some of our nation’s poorest children remain closed, continuing to educate remotely. In contrast, the overwhelming majority of inner city private schools opened weeks ago — and many are providing five-day-a-week live instruction.

Private schools’ success in reopening proves that, contrary to the naysayers, it can be done. It also illustrates the creativity of the nation’s entrepreneurial sector, which includes these independent, nonprofit schools. The lesson: When you need to reopen to stay in business, you figure out a way to do it.

Such resourcefulness, however, comes at a substantial cost. Schools are spending on a range of pandemic-related measures never before needed or included in their budgets. Leaders of The Learning Tree Cultural Preparatory School in the Bronx, one of more than 200 tuition-based schools in New York City attended by recipients of the Children’s Scholarship Fund (CSF), which I run, for example, told me the school has spent tens of thousands of dollars on pandemic protection — from masks to intensive expanded cleaning protocols to expensive renovations including updating bathrooms to include touchless faucets. Classrooms have also been rearranged to allow for social distancing, with plexiglass dividers between desks.

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According to anecdotal data from private schools nationwide in our CSF network, the cost of these measures averages from $100,000 to $250,000 per institution. Reopening has put a huge financial strain on already tight budgets of low-tuition private schools serving poor and middle-class families at a time when access to these schools has never been more important.  

A number of private schools have received some assistance under the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and the Department of Education under the leadership of Secretary Betsy DeVosElizabeth (Betsy) Dee DeVosHouse committee subpoenas Education Department staff over for-profit colleges DeVos says it isn't Department of Education's job to track schools' coronavirus reopening plans Judge calls Devos student loan forgiveness process 'disturbingly Kafkaesque' MORE made a heroic attempt to throw a much-needed lifeline to private schools and their low-income students under the CARES Act. However, legal action by opponents has cut off CARES Act funds to schools serving low-income children, where they are desperately needed.

Some assistance to private schools is included in The Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection and Schools Act, which was proposed this summer by Senate Republicans and got 52 votes. But the House version, the HEROES Act, excludes any aid to private schools or private school families. 

For schools relying on tuition from cash-strapped families and philanthropy to stay open, this is a very difficult situation. Even in normal times, the ends were barely meeting. How will it all turn out? No one knows. One hundred sixteen private schools have already closed as a result of COVID-19. The coming year will likely result in more closures. 

The importance of private institutions is illustrated by the fact that many are taking in students from shuttered public schools. This is putting these schools under even greater financial strain, given that student tuition rarely covers the cost of instruction, let alone pandemic supplies.

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It is critical that we put politics aside and help all of our children so that a year of education isn’t lost. Almost 90 percent of parents using private school scholarships from CSF ranked their child’s school a 4 or 5 out of 5 in parental satisfaction. In sharp contrast, studies have shown the majority of public school parents to be “very concerned” their children were falling behind with distance learning, including more than 70 percent of low income parents. It would seem that even the stoniest of hearts would be moved to help these families. 

Whether help comes from breaking the logjam on the existing funding already on the table, or from new proposals for assistance, now is not the time to lose private schools that are successfully educating students during this national emergency.  

Darla M. Romfo is president and chief operating officer of the Children’s Scholarship Fund, a nonprofit that provides partial scholarships for low-income children in grades K-8 to go to the school that best meets their needs.