Ep. 183: Private School Survey on COVID-19

May 27, 2020

Learn more about what you will find in the Private School COVID-19 Response Survey, prepared for EdChoice by Hanover Research.

Drew Catt: Hello, and welcome to another episode of EdChoice Chats. I’m Drew Catt, EdChoice’s director of state research and special projects, and I’m here today to talk about how private schools are handling the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m here today with Paul DiPerna, EdChoice’s vice president of research and innovation, who headed up our private school COVID-19 response survey, conducted by Hanover Research, and Mike McShane, EdChoice’s director of national research, who has been interviewing private school leaders to talk about what their school is doing. Thanks for joining me today, Paul and Mike.

Paul DiPerna: It’s great to be with you guys. Thanks for having us.

Mike McShane: Yeah, great to be with you.

Drew Catt: Yeah, it’s always nice to hear other voices and see other faces beyond those just in my household.

Paul DiPerna: Yep, and if you guys hear any kids who are just letting out a bunch of energy post the e-learning, you might get that tonight.

Mike McShane: The same is true here, and I will add dog noises as well. So, that’s always a possibility.

Drew Catt: Well, I tried to schedule it for this time a little selfishly, because this is what my toddler’s down for his nap. But let’s get into the research. It’s always nice to have a little fun and talk and catch up, but we’re about to talk about a really serious matter. So, Paul, would you mind starting us off by talking about why we did the survey research and what inspired it?

Paul DiPerna: Sure. Yeah. Happy to do that. So, as an organization, EdChoice, ever since schools started to close in the middle of March—and there was this response by both public schools and private schools to the coronavirus pandemic—we were monitoring things and just really trying to see what the responses have been among the private schools, which are a big part of our focus at EdChoice, as we study and do research on school choice programs and other kinds of activities and training and outreach around school choice.

So, a lot of really good information was coming out in late March and April from Education Week, who has been keeping up with school closures and have a really handy tool on their website to keep track of which schools and districts have been closing and what they’re doing for distance learning. The Center for Reinventing Public Education also monitoring the response from public school districts around the country. I think they are up to about 82-85 school districts in their database, and then Nat Malkus and Cody Christensen at American Enterprise Institute, AEI, they’ve been conducting a panel survey of public schools and doing different waves over the course of weeks.

So, there’s been a lot of information and focus on the public sector, and so, at EdChoice, we thought, “Well, what is happening in the private sector, and how is the pandemic affecting private schools around the country and their families and the students and the educators who are there?” So, we felt compelled to do a survey, something that’s part of our bread and butter activities on our research team, to do a survey of private schools in early April. We partnered with Hanover Research, who we’ve been doing work with for a few years now, and we also enlisted the help of some of our partners, national and state organizations, to help with providing school-level contacts to do the survey in the first half of April.

So, from April 1 to April 17 was when we fielded the survey, and we ended up getting almost 800 responses from schools, specifically 771 responses from school leaders and school administrators about what they’re doing during the pandemic.

Drew Catt: Yeah. It’s really great to add kind of to what all of the district schools are doing and the charter schools are doing, to see kind of how the private schools are handling everything. So Mike, would you mind talking about how you’ve been going about talking to private school leaders to find out what each of their individual schools are doing?

Mike McShane: Yeah, absolutely. So, as the pandemic washed its way across the United States, I was sort of confronted with, “What could I do?” Is there anything that I could do, as an education researcher, to try and play some small part in fighting back against this terrible disease? I thought, “We at EdChoice have a great network of private schools that we know about.” I know lots of private schools, and public schools as well, were reeling. They were struggling. What are we supposed to do? We have to transition to some form of online learning. How are we going to do that on the fly?

Some stories were starting to trickle out of, “Hey, my kid goes to a school where they’re really doing it well” or “my nephew.” Or, “There’s a school in my neighborhood that’s doing this well.” I thought maybe I could put together five or seven of these schools, spend some time talking to their leaders, ask them about the things that they’re doing, and then just sort of share it out with the purpose of informing other school leaders across the country of, “Hey, you have questions about how to roll out this particular online learning tool. Well, here’s another school that’s doing it” or you want to know how much of your day should be spent sort of in synchronous and Zoom conference calls with kids and how much of it could they be working independently on their own.

So, what I did was reach out across the country to different types of private schools and interview their leaders to talk with them about how they’ve been working through these issues, so talk about how the virus started to affect them, how they made the decisions of when to move, and then how they stood up whatever they were doing. I really had this great opportunity to talk to some very diverse schools.

So, I talked with Kathleen Porter-Magee from the Partnership Schools, which is a sort of inner city set of Catholic schools in New York City. I spoke to a Montessori preschool in Copperfield, Texas. I’ve talked with a Catholic high school in New Hampshire and I think a Lutheran elementary school in Arizona. So, really spread across the country, lots of different types of schools, and just tried to share the lessons that they’ve learned thus far.

Drew Catt: Yeah, that’s great. I love hearing and kind of following along as you’ve posted those blog posts and kind of wrote about how so much good is coming and how so many private school leaders are kind of figuring things out. Hey, like anything in life right now, it just takes one person to kind of show the rest of the people what is or is not possible, and it’s great to have examples to look to when kind of trying to scramble and figure things out on your own. So Paul, would you mind telling our listeners a little about the methodology related to the survey, and, really, what can people find in the report?

Paul DiPerna: Sure. No, happy to do that. So, our methods are pretty straightforward. This was an online survey of private schools nationally. As I mentioned a second ago, we obtained our own lists based on the private school surveys at the state level that we’ve done, Drew, that you’ve been doing for quite a while now. So we had surveyed statewide private schools over the last six or seven years, almost a dozen states, and then we also were able to utilize and work with partners like the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA), Christian Schools International, the Council for American Private Education (CAPE), and Step Up for Students. They all partnered, and they were willing to disseminate and share out the survey link to their private school contacts.

So, that was a huge help. For something like this, they didn’t have to get into the weeds, but that is really helpful to have partners like them to share the survey. It builds trust and trustworthiness of the effort and can increase the response from whoever you’re trying to survey, so, in this case, private schools.

So, like I mentioned, we got 771 schools to respond. A big chunk of those were from Florida, in large part with the help of Step Up for Students, who’s focused in Florida. So, we had more than 200 schools from Florida, and we’re in the process of pulling out those results specific to Florida to see how they may differ from the rest of the country, if at all.

So, this was all done online. The fielding period was a little bit over two weeks, April 1-17, and Hanover Research conducted the survey on our behalf and collected all the data and all the quality control. So this was all done pretty quickly, at least based on our experiences, in terms of putting together a survey and fielding it and collecting the data and reporting it out. But we just really, as an organization, really wanted to be as responsive to the rapidly changing conditions, especially related to schools and education around the country, and so we felt it really important to produce some information to complement what’s already been provided on the public school side, but to be able to provide something on the private school side to get a better picture of how schools and the leadership at those schools are responding to the pandemic. So, that’s where things are.

So, to go quickly into what we learned and what we found, there were some really interesting takeaways that we were able to glean from the data. So we saw that private schools really appeared to lack any experience on the remote learning and e-learning side, and so it appears they really had to do a quick pivot and adjustment in March, as the public schools did, too, to move from in-person learning in brick and mortar schools to doing it virtually via remote learning.

So, what we saw is that pretty sizable chunk, almost half, said that they had not provided any kind of e-learning to their students. Then, on the other end, about a quarter of the private schools said that they had done some type of e-learning, remote learning on a weekly basis. So definitely at least half of the schools had never tried to provide some means of education online before, so this would be a big adjustment.

Another question that we asked was what type of learning tools they were using, and the three that seemed to stand out were Zoom, Google Classroom, and Khan Academy were being used quite a bit by the private schools in our sample. Seemed to be the go-to technologies for promoting this kind of virtual e-learning.

In terms of expectations on teachers, there was a pretty large… A majority of the private schools said that they expected their teachers to be teaching or instructing full-time virtually. That was roughly about two-thirds of the private schools said that, and then about one out of five private school said they expected that their teachers at least be teaching part-time virtually.

Then we also asked questions about how the schools are communicating with their families, and this was an encouraging sign and finding from the surveys, that the vast majority of private schools said that they were communicating with their families at least multiple times through the course of the week. So, about 85 percent of the private schools said that they were communicating with their parents multiple times a week. 14 percent said they were actually touching base multiple times a day. So, that’s encouraging, just to see those lines of communications are open between the schools and the parents.

I’d say those were really our top line findings, but I’m happy to go into too a little bit more on some of the more maybe nuanced takeaways from the survey.

Drew Catt: Yeah. Thanks, Paul. Now, Mike, how would some of what Paul was going through kind of be supported by or even in opposition to kind of the interviews that you’ve been doing with school leaders and maybe what one or two school leaders have done that really kind of goes above and beyond what Paul was talking about from the survey?

Mike McShane: Yeah, basically to pick up where he left off, the communications. I mean, it seems to me that schools that have been really successful in managing this crisis have been ones that emphasized communication, like Chicago voting early and often. One school I’d really like to highlight, and you can go on their website and check it out now, Bishop Guertin High School, which is in New Hampshire, I think it’s in Nashua, New Hampshire. I might get that wrong. It is, and we won’t hold this against them, the alma mater of our own Jason Bedrick.

But they stood up a COVID-19 information page I want to say in late January or early February, just getting the ball rolling at that point. “Hey, we’ve heard this thing that’s sort of on the horizon. We’re watching it.” Then as it ramped up, it’s like, “Well, we’re starting to plan, and here’s some information about it.” So, not only was it information about what their school was doing, but also just connections, so like, “Here’s what the CDC says,” or, “Here’s a news story about it.” So, even if you didn’t have a kid at that school, it would have actually been a really useful resource for you.

So, it’s something that I was just really impressed by, and then, not surprisingly, when they had to make transitions and had to make changes, they had this strong line of communication available, and they were able to do that, which I thought was really impressive.

Another school that’s worth highlighting is… I think I mentioned them before, but the Partnership Schools in New York City. So, they serve a generally much more low-income population. This communication was taking place at ground zero for coronavirus in America during a really difficult time that was there. Kathleen Porter-Magee, who runs those schools, said to me, “Look. Between email, telephone, Facebook, and Instagram, we can reach all of our families, right? Between one of those things, they have one of them, right? So, if we need to get a hold of them, we can use one of those tools that’s available.”

They’ve done some really cool stuff with those, which we can go into later if you’re interested. But I think that’s been just such a huge, important thing, is keeping these lines of communication open, having multiple opportunities, multiple touch points between schools and families. So if Internet access is a problem, we’re going to use the telephone, and tied into that has been surveying. I think a lot of these schools that are doing things well are regularly sending short surveys to their families, asking them, “How is e-learning going? What issues are you facing? How can we be helpful,” because so much of this is just shots in the dark, right? Schools are trying to estimate how much work a child should do in a given day, but because they’ve never done it before, they don’t know. So, maybe they did too much. Maybe they did too little. The only way they can figure that out is by asking.

So, by regularly surveying parents at the end of every week or every few days to say, “How’s this working? What’s working? What isn’t? How can we be helpful,” has not only continued to keep that touchpoint between schools and parents, but also help them change the work they’re doing to best meet the needs of the kids in their care.

Drew Catt: Yeah. That’s great to hear about all of those different touchpoints, and how hard that must be to do virtually. I mean, it’s hard enough to do physically in a building, let alone to have it be happening virtually. So, it’s great to hear the amazing things that schools and school leaders are doing and the progress that has been made thus far, but kind of what are school leaders worried about at this point, or at least at the point that the survey was conducted, related to COVID-19?

Paul DiPerna: Yeah. So, as of mid-April, what seemed to pop out is that school leaders did have significant concerns and worries about finances, lost enrollment, and also just the length of the pandemic and the uncertainty about that length of the pandemic. So, at least half the respondents said they were either very or extremely worried about students’ families struggling financially, and so they were not just concerned about their own finances at the school, but two-thirds said that they were worried about their school’s families struggling financially. So, that’s top of mind for these school leaders.

About 51 percent of the school leaders said the same, very or extremely worried about losing enrollment and losing students going into the next school year. So that would be what they would view as it is a very significant impact to their school family and school life there. About 40 percent of the respondents said very or extremely worried about drops in philanthropic support, collecting tuition for the remainder of this school year. About 41 percent of the respondents said that, and also about the same number said that they’re worried about this crisis lasting into next school year.

Probably growing even more, since things may appear to have stabilized in parts of the country, but in terms of the longer term impact of COVID, there’s as much uncertainty today as there was a month ago.

Drew Catt: Yeah. I’m sure the announcement that the Cal State system is planning to go virtual has left a lot of private schools in California thinking about what they themselves are going to be doing for the fall semester.

Paul DiPerna: Yeah. I saw that, too, Drew, and it is something. Once the dominoes start going and those kinds of first movers, especially as big as Cal State, and having such a large presence and influence on education in that state, yeah, it leads you to wonder what’s going to happen in K-12 in California and nationally, as higher ed maybe moves perhaps even a little more quickly than K-12.

Drew Catt: Yeah. So Mike, what have school leaders told you that they are worried about related to all of this?

Mike McShane: I mean, I think a lot of them are really focused right now on just trying to get through the rest of this school year, and they have their kind of nose to the grindstone, just trying to get over the finish line. Depending on where they are in the country, that could be as soon as two weeks from now. It could be as much as a month or six weeks from now. I think what they’re really looking at is next fall.

Now, some schools that offer summer programs are worried about those. Those can be a substantial revenue stream for some specialized schools that exist out there. So, I don’t want to gloss over that too quickly, because that is a meaningful issue for many schools. But the real thing they’re looking at is next fall. If this sort of economic calamity continues, private schools are worried about people being able to pay tuition, and this is sort of outside of trying to figure out what to do if kids can’t come back to school and they have to figure out either how to do a socially distant kindergarten or something like that, but just are people going to have money to pay tuition? Sort of related, would they pay tuition for a mostly online school? If their traditional public school is going to be mostly online and their private school is going to be mostly online, why pay tuition to go to the private school?

So, I think there are definitely those concerns that are looming on the horizon. Schools are trying to demonstrate their value as much as humanly possible right now. They’re trying to set themselves apart. They’re trying to show how they’re going above and beyond to justify that tuition investment. But it’s definitely something that they’re looking at. Even if potentially the best of their abilities takes place, people just don’t have the money, then they don’t have the money, and that could be a real hit for them in the fall.

Paul DiPerna: Just to follow up with what Mike was just describing, I mean, it will be interesting. I think this is very much still an unknown or open question, because, anecdotally, we hear that some schools are providing more real-time, live instruction than others, whether it’s within sector or comparing private and public. So, the more that information comes out, the more that kind of value proposition or lack thereof is maybe perhaps better known by parents for them to make that kind of assessment. But yeah, I think it will be interesting just to see what happens in the fall and to what extent, if the schools do go back full time or if they’re taking a hybrid approach, part online and then maybe staggered within school building learning, and so we’ll just have to wait and see.

Drew Catt: Yeah, I’d say the thing that I keep talking about with my wife, who teaches at a 5,000-plus student high school, was like, “OK, even if you have socially-distant desks, how are students going to maintain social distance entering the classroom, leaving the classroom, getting up to sharpen their pencil, going to the bathroom? Who’s going to be cleaning the bathrooms every single time after use?” There’s a lot of logistic hurdles, given that everything stays constant right now through the fall.

So Paul, you mentioned philanthropic support, and I would feel like I would be doing my master’s in philanthropic studies disservice if I did not key in on this. So, what are school leaders saying that their needs are that could use some really bolstered support from the philanthropic community?

Paul DiPerna: We asked the question about what school leaders see as their biggest philanthropic priorities, and, probably not to anyone’s real surprise, I mean, they clearly said that they’re looking and concerned about and prioritizing financial support for the school and then also just direct financial support for their students and their families. So, over half of the respondents, 54 percent, they ranked financial support for students and families as either a first or second priority for that respondent. They would ask for potential donor support, and then very similarly, not at all statistically different, 56 percent of the respondents said that they would go and approach potential donors for financial support for that school and that’s also a first or second priority, in their minds.

Drew Catt: Then Mike, what have you really been hearing, if you’ve talked kind of about that topic with any private school leaders?

Mike McShane: I mean, I think a lot of private schools have dipped into their already oftentimes meager reserves right now to try and stand up devices and Internet connectivity and all of those things. So, schools that already operate on pretty thin margins are going to continue to operate on thin margins.

So, I just think philanthropy, government, other folks that can look out for this sort of reckoning that may be happening in the fall, I think there’s a really strong role that philanthropic organizations can play. They can really make a difference. I think sometimes philanthropies ask questions about whether their money does good, and we have to have these complex evaluations to figure out whether we did anything. This is a really straightforward one. Lots of private schools are on the risk of closure, and if the sort of current trends continue, they will close. Thousands of children will lose this particular schooling option. So, philanthropic organizations looking at local private schools and asking how they can help, can they do some sort of bridge between where we are now and where we hope to be in a year or 18 months from now I think could have a huge difference.

Drew Catt: Yeah, and I’m sure that there are a lot of grant makers at the local, state, regional, national, and even international level that are trying to figure out what the best use of their dollars are, related to education grant making, especially in this time of extreme national and international need. So, let’s pivot a little to less what individual or organizational funders can do. Let’s look at what steps school leaders think that state or local governments could take to help their schools. So Paul, what was found out through the survey?

Paul DiPerna: Yeah. So, I mean, what stood out for sure was that school leaders, they really are looking for clear guidance about what should be expected of schools during the pandemic, and they see a clear state and local government role for providing that guidance not just to public schools, but also to their private schools.

Then the other three items that we asked them about were providing Internet access to students, offering professional development for teachers around online learning, and then, finally, providing meals for their students and families. Those were all lower down on the priority list when it came to what private schools are looking for from state and local governments.

Drew Catt: Then Mike, I know this isn’t normally the kind of thing that you would ask when you’re interviewing private school leaders, but have any really indicated what their state government or local government might be able to do to help them?

Mike McShane: Sure. I’m happy to give you a quotation from Elizabeth Head, who is the Head of School of the International School of Indiana in y’all’s backyard. They’re in Indianapolis. She said to me directly, and I quote, “The government needs to fund private schools.” I think lots of private school leaders are looking at this very, very directly, which is all sorts of other businesses are getting coronavirus aid. Nonprofit organizations, churches are all qualifying for that sort of stuff. So, it’s really important that private schools are part of that conversation as well.

Drew Catt: We’ll see what shakes out here in the fair state of Indiana, between what the USDOE is recommending in its guidelines and what the state DOE is or is not willing to do.

Paul DiPerna: Absolutely. Yep. I think, looking back on our questionnaire, hindsight’s always 20/20, and just talking before about how things have rapidly evolved. But when we were putting together the questionnaire, we didn’t anticipate the SBA loan forgiveness program that schools could potentially qualify for, and so that would be a followup, just to see how many schools have taken advantage of that, have tried to receive those loans or at least applied for those loans, how many were successful, how many were unsuccessful. So, that can be another future wave down the road, either by us or by anyone else out there interested in this line of research.

Drew Catt: Yeah, because I’m sure any national reporting will probably be more on where the funds flowed, not necessarily who applied and may or may not have been rejected. Yeah, that’d be fascinating to know. So, speaking of future research, are there any plans to keep doing research in this area? Mike, are you going to keep interviewing about what they’re doing? Paul, is there a plan to do a future survey to ask maybe some of those follow-on questions?

Mike McShane: Yeah. I know for me, I’m definitely interested in continuing to have these conversations, particularly looking towards the future. A lot of the conversations I had with folks were really in the weeds of what they were doing just in that moment: “What is your school doing right now to cope with the coronavirus?” Only towards the end did I start to say, “Well, how are you looking towards the future?” I’m going to be really interested to see particularly over the summer, as this kind of modeling and gaming out of potential futures takes place, to have some conversations with these and other leaders and ask them, “So, how are you preparing for this? What’s your best-case scenario? What’s your worst-case scenario? What types of difficult decisions are you going to need to make?”

So, I hope to continue talking to private school leaders. So, if you’re a private school leader that’s listening to this, please feel free to reach out to me. If not, I may be reaching out to you anyway.

Paul DiPerna: Yeah, and just like Mike indicated, I mean, that’s something that… We’re doing some other survey research and polling around the pandemic and its effects and influence on schooling, and we’re starting to add more questions about the future and, as best they can, given the uncertainty that’s out there, how are they preparing for and planning for this fall and the next school year? So, if we do another follow-up on the private school survey, that’s something we’d like to do, is add some of those questions that are more future-oriented and almost have a forecasting nature, just to see what are they anticipating and what are they worried about? What are they planning for in the future?

Drew Catt: Yeah, I’m sure the timing of that and when that might go out in the field would be kind of crucial, because, as of now, like Mike alluded to, a lot of private schools and a lot of schools in general are just trying to get through the end of the school year, let alone start the real, real hard… or I don’t know. I don’t know if it would be harder or easier than the scramble that’s been happening to really project in June or July what they might be doing in August with so many unknown variables out there.

Mike McShane: Agreed.

Drew Catt: Well, Paul, Mike, thank you so much for joining today.

Paul DiPerna: Thanks, Drew. This was a lot of fun.

Mike McShane: Yeah. Thanks for having us.

Drew Catt: Our thoughts are with all of you listening, and I highly recommend you all go read the post up on our blog that is titled Supporting Kids’ Mental and Emotional Health While Schools are Closed, because I’m sure that will also be important information to have throughout the summer as well.

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