COVID-19 and the Unexpected Experiment in Day School Affordability

By Adam Minsky

Of all that has been said of the pandemic, an insight that resonates deeply is that it has accelerated pressures on preexisting weaknesses in society.

Jewish communities are no exception. Every Jewish community has its own unique strengths and weaknesses. The latter are being tested to an extent we could not have foreseen. So too, communities have leveraged their strengths in new and wonderful ways – sometimes with unexpected results.

A year ago, I never could have predicted that Id be writing about how day school enrollment grew in Toronto for the first time in decades … in the middle of a global pandemic.

Indeed, a strength of the Toronto community is our day school system and, by extension, the philanthropic leaders who built and sustain it. Roughly a third of elementary-aged Jewish children are in day school, with a vibrant diversity of options across the spectrum of Jewish practice. Through an annual UJA investment of roughly $10 million in tuition assistance, we have been able to ensure families with modest incomes are able to provide their children with a day school education.

However, this strength is at grave risk of erosion due to a critical community weakness: the economic stability of the middle class. For years, a growing number of middle-income families that do not qualify for tuition assistance have been unable to afford day school for their children. This is a perilous trend for any community. In addition to the impact on those directly affected, it undermines the health of the broader community given the vital role middle class families play in sustaining Jewish institutions.

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, we quickly realized that this trend would only accelerate this year due to the financial crisis. Here in Canada, nearly half of all households were impacted by job loss or reduced working hours – and the Jewish community was no exception. Without a rapid intervention, many would end up being permanently disconnected from day school and other key Jewish experiences.

We responded by launching an Emergency Campaign for Community Resilience aimed at raising $25 million above our Annual Campaign of $60 million, dedicated to two core imperatives. First, ensuring that no community member in need would be turned away from our Jewish social service agencies due to a lack of communal resources. Second, ensuring that no Jewish child or teen would be disconnected from essential Jewish experiences due to the financial crisis.

The former is best examined in another column. And while the latter includes a strategy for various experiences – such as part-time Jewish schooling, summer camp, and JCC programs – we’ll focus on the topic at hand: day school.

A year ago, UJA started fundraising for a $200 million endowment initiative called The Generations Trust. The goal was to reduce and stabilize tuition on a long-term basis for middle-income families. The pandemic forced us to temporarily shift our focus from a long-term, systemic challenge in day school affordability to a short-term, situational crisis. While an endowment was right in the first instance, an emergency infusion of tuition assistance funds was now needed. Without rapid tuition relief, many who would leave day school due to the economic crisis would be unlikely to re-enrol in the future, even when restored to financial stability.

We soon realized we were embarking on an inadvertent experiment that would test the assumptions behind the endowment plan. As day schools returned to in-person classes in recent days, initial results are promising.

This will be the first time in seventeen years that enrollment has not declined across the Toronto day school system. To the contrary, overall enrollment is up, including by five percent in the non-Orthodox sector, which has been particularly challenged over the past two decades. This represents nearly 250 new students in day school.

To be sure, many are looking at day schools with renewed appreciation these past six months. Day schools quickly transitioned to offer high-quality virtual learning in the spring and played a key role in the mental health of students and their families. But affordability has also been one of the keys to unexpected growth in the system.

This year, more than 350 students who previously paid full tuition are receiving emergency tuition assistance or interest-free loans, offered through a simplified application for families hit financially by the pandemic. Additionally, hundreds of students who previously received tuition assistance have qualified for an even greater subsidy this year, again due to the financial fallout of COVID-19.

As a result, an entire cohort of students who were at risk of leaving the day school system have been able to remain enrolled. Retaining these students is not only invaluable in strengthening their individual Jewish journeys. It also helps ensure the stability and continued vibrancy of our day schools.

This represents just the first surge of needs in the community, which is likely to expand in the coming months as government benefits, severance payments, and savings come to an end. Meeting that growing demand will be a priority in the new Jewish year. No less important, we will redouble our efforts to provide a long-term solution to day school affordability, so that the progress we have made this year marks a turning point, not a one-time initiative.

In starkly exposing the vulnerability of the Jewish middle class, the pandemic has revealed a future we cannot afford to pass on to our children. So too, the emergency funding – and this unexpected experiment – revealed what’s possible with focused resources. And in a year of many surprises, this is a positive one worth carrying with us into 5781.

Adam Minsky is President & CEO of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. He is the proud parent of three teenagers whose Jewish identities have been very much shaped by their day school education.