Will day schools’ new students stay, post-pandemic?

The pandemic has raised the costs, already high, of running day schools

For Jewish day schools, yesterday was the anniversary of the pandemic — on March 3, 2020, remote learning started in three schools located in New Rochelle, N.Y., one of the first COVID-19 epicenters. Parents noticed that quick pivot, and day schools experienced an unexpected surge of interest despite their price tag. Now the schools are  trying to hold onto  their new students. “Will it stick? Schools are working to retain the students who have come this year, to make ourselves attractive to more, to address the affordability question,” said Paul Bernstein, CEO of Prizmah, a support organization that serves about 300 day schools.

Among non-Orthodox schools, the average increase in enrollment was 4% — a reversal in the long-term decline in day school enrollment. Prizmah doesn’t yet know how many of this year’s new students are re-enrolling, said Bernstein, but the competitive advantages that drew them persist. At first, new families were drawn by the higher quality of the remote learning, said Alex Pomson, principal and managing director at Rosov Consulting, which advises Jewish organizations on evaluation, strategy and fundraising. Day schools like the ones in New Rochelle had made that transition relatively quickly due to widespread interest over the last five years in what educators call “blended learning,” which combines in-person and online education. “They weren’t starting from scratch,” he said. “They had hardware.” According to an August survey, 65% of the schools served by Prizmah reported receiving an increase in enrollment inquiries, about two-thirds of which were from public school families. By the time the new academic year started, 67% of day schools were offering at least some in-person instruction, according to Prizmah, which was another draw. “People are buying their way out of the public schools because they’re 100% remote right now,” said Melissa Rivkin, who leads day school strategy at the Samis Foundation in Seattle. 

The investment in professional development and equipment that made day schools’ quick switch to remote learning possible has a downside, however, Rivkin said. It’s also one of the reasons they’re so expensive. “That drives up costs,” she said. “We’re competing with private schools.” Even before the pandemic, day school tuition averaged $23,000 a year, and can cost up to double that amount in some urban areas, according to “Jewish Education and the Pandemic,” a Commentary article by Pomson and Jack Wertheimer, a professor of history at the Jewish Theological Seminary.  

The August survey showed that COVID-19 drove up costs, as well. Schools predicted an average increase in expenses of $669 per child, and an average increase in their tuition assistance of 16%, in the 2020-2021 school year.

A more recent Prizmah study of school fundraisers, however, conducted in January and released on Wednesday, showed that many supporters responded directly to the problems wrought by the pandemic. Eight in 10 of the schools said they received COVID-19 relief from the local federation or other Jewish organizations, while more than 40% of schools reported an increase in contributions from both major and other donors. Almost half of the schools found more than 10 new donors by running emergency campaigns. 

Longer-term, government funding for non-public schools represents an important and growing source of support that could help schools lower tuition, said Ashley Rogers Berner, a professor and the director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy. Both Prizmah and the Orthodox Union (OU) support state aid for Jewish schools; Maury Litwack, executive director of the OU’s Teach Coalition, lobbies on behalf of more than 140 day schools in California, Florida, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. In each of those states, Litwack said, Jewish schools can rely on government funding in their budgets, from 3% in New York State to as high as 15% in Florida and Pennsylvania, and government at the federal, state and local levels treated public and non-public schools equally for the purposes of pandemic relief. (The OU’s group includes Haredi schools, while Prizmah represents both Orthodox and non-Orthodox schools — about half of Prizmah’s schools are Orthodox. Some schools belong to both groups, Litwack noted.) What’s more, new students represent more of a financial boost than simply another tuition check; they create economies of scale, said Pomson. Once a school has made certain big investments — like a remote learning system, for example — the cost per additional student starts to drop.  

The question, then, comes back to priorities for both families and funders, Rivkin said: “It’s about the value proposition. A Jewish school is more than just educating, it’s inspiring, it’s cultivating the Jewish future. It’s a holy mission.” If families who hadn’t been part of a Jewish school community now find that they like it, maybe they will pay to stay. “Each family must answer the question in its own way,” wrote Pomson and Wertheimer. 

Likewise, supporters of Jewish schools will look at the impact and potential of this new group of students, and decide how to respond once the immediate effects of the pandemic have receded, Rivkin said. She added  that the most effective way to increase enrollment is to help schools cut tuition by a significant percentage, but it’s a very expensive strategy. “Those subsidies do work,” she said. “They’re a dirty little secret in the day school world, which is strange because we know from camp and Birthright that they work.”