Just like schools from all sectors across the globe, Christian schools were significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2020. In the U.S., most public and private school campuses were closed by state mandate during the month of March—often with little to no advance notice. Across the country and the world, Christian schools pivoted their instructional practices and business operations in the face of this new reality.
In an effort to understand the responses of Christian schools in the face of COVID-19, ACSI Research conducted a survey of U.S. member schools in late April 2020. The survey collected real-time data on school closures, the transition to distance learning formats, current distance learning practices, and the financial impact of COVID-19. The survey also asked respondents about forecasting for the 2020-2021 school year, including enrollment projections, contingency budgets, and new distance learning opportunities being considered. The findings of the survey—as detailed in the report Christian Schools and COVID-19: Responding Nimbly, Facing the Future—point to the overall nimbleness and tenacity of Christian schools in responding to COVID-19. The findings also indicate the necessity of ongoing planning in the face of uncertainty for the next school year. [Note: 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 April 2020. All of ACSI’s member schools in the United States were invited to participate via email. A total of 790 unique schools responded to the survey for a response rate of 42.4%. Respondents to the survey identified themselves as heads of school (63%), other school administrators (21%), or other staff or board members (16%). Overall, the responding schools were representative of ACSI membership across a number of demographic factors. This includes geographic distribution, with 32% of responding schools located in the Western U.S., 30% in the Central U.S., and 38% in the Eastern U.S. Respondents were also fairly representative of ACSI membership in terms of school size (by enrollment) and grade levels offered.
At the time of the survey administration in late April, the physical campuses of over 98% of schools with elementary, middle, and/or high school grades were closed. Where these schools reported also having an early education program, 89% of those programs were physically closed. The survey also asked how many instructional days schools missed due to physical closures (not counting holidays or planned breaks), with the goal of gauging how quickly member schools pivoted to distance learning. Across all levels, approximately one-third of schools missed no instructional days due to campus closures; nearly two-thirds missed less than three instructional days; and nearly four out of five schools missed less than five instructional days.
Distance Learning Transition
A number of survey questions were designed to gauge schools’ preparedness for the transition to distance learning. This included self-report by respondents of their level of preparedness, from extremely unprepared to extremely prepared. The majority of respondents reported being either prepared or extremely prepared (total of 44%) for the transition to distance learning; an additional 25% described their school as neither prepared nor unprepared; and 31% reported their school was either unprepared or extremely unprepared for distance learning.
In addition to self-rating their school’s preparedness, the survey asked respondents about their school’s usage of distance learning tools prior to COVID-19 closures. The survey found that 83% of schools had utilized at least one distance learning tool/method prior to COVID-19, while 17% reported never using any distance learning tools/methods before.
The survey asked respondents to identify the distance learning tools/methods in use during COVID-19 across the grade levels offered at their schools (early education, elementary, middle, and high school). Across all levels, teacher-recorded videos, Zoom or other videoconferencing tools, and Google Classroom were among the top five distance learning tools/methods for instruction. Additional approaches included project- or problem-based learning, student collaboration, and web-based services (e.g., Khan Academy, Rosetta Stone). Across all grade levels, the subjects most frequently offered via distance learning were (in descending order of frequency): core academics; Bible; music/arts’ physical education; and electives. Only at the high school level were electives offered with greater frequency than physical education.
The survey also asked participants about the availability of special education and student support services during distance learning. Among responding schools, these services are most frequently being offered at a decreased level of support (32.8%). A smaller percentage of schools are offering services at the same level of support (22.8%), at a higher level of support (7.3%), or have discontinued services altogether (4.6%). [It should be noted that a further 32.5% of schools indicated they did not offer these services prior to COVID-19.]
The survey asked respondents about the financial impact of COVID-19. Results indicated that the majority of schools are: a) providing emergency financial assistance to families; b) not offering discounts or refunds for tuition; c) attempting to minimize staff furloughs and layoffs; and d) planning to participate in the SBA loan program provided through the CARES Act. Quantitative data indicated that a majority of schools (40.8%) halted fundraising campaigns and initiatives due to COVID-19. An additional 37.8% of schools were continuing fundraising campaigns and initiatives, but with modifications to existing plans. Qualitative data from schools provided strong support for continuing or modifying fundraising efforts, as respondents reported that donors were often willing to continue or increase their giving toward financial assistance or special funds designated for families struggling with COVID-19-related financial needs.
Looking Ahead to 2020-2021
At the time of survey administration, a majority of schools (55.2%) reported that current re-enrollment numbers for 2020-2021 were trending at or above last year’s number. New student inquiries, however, were down from last year for a majority of schools (57.4%). When asked about their budgeting for next school year, 55% of schools indicated they were budgeting for a decrease in enrollment, while 29% were unsure of their plans, and a further 16% were not expecting a decrease. Of those that were budgeting for a decrease, 6-10% was the most frequent range of projected decreases used.
While COVID-19 has presented instructional, operational, and financial challenges to schools during the present academic year, there is a strong likelihood that COVID-19 disruptions will continue into the next school year. As one survey respondent shared, “Our goal is to be able to seamlessly alternate immediately between on-campus instruction and online instruction with no loss in effectiveness by the beginning of the 2020-21 school year.” In order to gauge the measures schools are taking to ensure continuity of learning and business operations into 2020-2021, the survey asked respondents to identify new opportunities for distance learning being considered. Significantly, nearly half of schools plan to incorporate distance learning into brick-and-mortar delivery, and nearly a quarter of schools are planning to make additional technology investments and/or offer a new hybrid delivery program.
Discussion & Recommendations
The quantitative and qualitative survey data revealed three emerging themes which, taken together, illustrate the overall response of Christian schools to COVID-19. These are: 1) schools responding nimbly in the transition to distance learning; 2) schools nurturing community in the midst of challenge; and 3) schools’ need to strengthen contingency budgeting as they look toward the coming school year.
Even though Christian schools demonstrated nimbleness in transitioning to distance learning during the spring, it is still unclear whether and how in-person instruction can resume in the fall. Barring the quick development of an effective vaccine for COVID-19, schools will likely face further disruption during the 2020-2021 school year according to Forbes.com. Encouragingly, member schools seem to be preparing for this reality; close to half of schools report that they are planning to incorporate distance learning into brick-and-mortar delivery in the coming academic year, with another quarter making additional investments in technology (e.g., an LMS) and/or offering a new hybrid delivery program.
It is possible that these investments prompted by the COVID-19 crisis will help Christian schools prepare for an increased opportunity and demand for blended learning in the future. However, in order for Christian schools to continue responding nimbly to COVID-19-related changes in the coming months, it is recommended that schools plan to engage in a process of continuous improvement in regard to distance learning. While teachers, students, and families may have shown flexibility and patience during the spring, crisis methods of schooling are likely neither sustainable nor of sufficient quality to ensure educational excellence for the long haul. Improving distance learning will necessitate: a) systematic feedback from school constituents; b) strategic investments in technology; c) ongoing professional development for teachers and staff; and d) incorporation of best practices for supporting students of varying abilities and backgrounds in a distance learning environment. Ultimately, these improvements will help position schools to better serve families and students into the future, even beyond the current challenges of COVID-19, via blended learning.
Member schools utilized a variety of formats to continue to foster communication with and between school constituents. These methods included regular emails, phone calls, videos, virtual chapels, and a variety of creative approaches to community-building. Additionally, more than two-thirds of member schools reported providing emergency financial assistance to families impacted by COVID-19. Overall, qualitative data from respondents suggests that school families appreciate the connection with, and support from, the school.
Of course, as the 2020-2021 school year approaches, uncertainty persists around what the year will look like for families, students, and school staff alike. Given this reality, schools will need to continue to prioritize community-centric actions, including: a) proactive, two-way communication with families; b) regular community-building activities and initiatives; and c) continuation and possible expansion of financial assistance for families in need. As importantly, it is recommended that schools devise written, actionable plans for how they will consider the well-being of students and staff next year, which research on Christian schools has shown is essential to the flourishing of both. This may include incorporating trauma-based instruction and support for students, as well as proactively promoting staff well-being (i.e., through wellness training, health-conscious scheduling, and providing regular check-ins and feedback opportunities).
Strengthening Contingency Plans
The data suggests a need for schools to strengthen their financial planning in light of ongoing economic uncertainty related to COVID-19. For example, when asked about contingency budgeting for next year, 55% of respondents indicated that their schools are budgeting for decreased enrollment. While this is a majority of schools, another 29% reported being “unsure” about budgeting and an additional 16% indicated they were not budgeting for an enrollment decrease. And for those schools who were budgeting for decreases, the most common range of enrollment decrease was 6-10%. Survey data on re-enrollment trends and new student inquiries reinforce this recommendation. While re-enrollment seems to be holding steady for a majority of schools at the time of the survey (with close to 55% reporting similar or higher rates than last year), a significant number of schools (35%) reported lower re-enrollment rates. As concerning is the drop in new student inquiries, with 57.4% of schools reporting that these inquiries are lower than this point last year—thus jeopardizing the pipeline of new students upon which many schools depend, both to replace the graduating class and students lost to attrition.
The financial picture for many schools is further problematized by schools’ actions with regard to this year’s fundraising campaigns and initiatives. Nearly 41% of respondents stated their schools ceased fundraising efforts altogether, with another 18.6% indicating they were unsure of their school’s plans or the question did not apply to them. This means that around 60% of schools responding to the survey were not fundraising for the remainder of the school year.
These findings suggest that many schools are not as aggressively considering the potential financial impact of COVID-19 as they could—or, perhaps, should, per the Brookings Institution, which points to the severe financial challenges to private schools that will likely result in school closures. Given this possibility, schools should engage in robust contingency planning for multiple scenarios reflecting enrollment and fundraising decreases. Scenarios should also take into account other income loss that may result from further COVID-19 disruption (such as camp income, auxiliary income from athletics, etc.), the ongoing and possibly increasing financial needs of families facing their own COVID-19-related challenges, and new COVID-19-related costs that schools may be required to incur (from expanded cleaning services and personal protective equipment, to investing in technology improvements to support distance or blended learning).
Additionally, articulating the value proposition of Christian education—while always important—may never have been as critical as right now. The disruption in education due to COVID-19 will likely accelerate the already-existing proliferation of educational options for families, which have posed a challenge to Christian school enrollments for more than a decade. Articulating the unique value proposition of Christian education will require intensive internal and external marketing to current and prospective families, by telling positive stories and highlighting measurable outcomes of a Christian school education. Schools’ nimble responses to the COVID-19 disruption, as well as the enormous value of Christian community during crisis, can serve as key talking points in articulating schools’ value proposition to families for the coming year.
Finally, schools’ ability to survive and thrive may depend on innovation and reaching new markets. Thus, in addition to contingency planning, schools should pay significant attention to cultivating new opportunities for influence and impact that may exist in the coming school year and beyond. This might involve developing programs or offerings that increase access to families and students for whom Christian education was previously inaccessible—whether because of their unique circumstances, geographical location, or inability to afford private school tuition. It may involve opportunities for collaboration and cost-sharing with other Christian schools. Or it might necessitate considering innovative new business models and income streams.
While school leaders may understandably feel they cannot afford the time to explore these and other opportunities for innovation, the reality is that many schools cannot afford to ignore them. Times of crisis have the potential to provide ripe conditions for incubating paradigm-shifting ideas. This may be especially true for Christian schools, if they approach this time prayerfully and with expectation in God, “who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us,” all for His glory (Ephesians 3:20-21, NIV).
Note: A Town Hall recording on Back to School: What’s Going to Be Different, where survey results were shared and discussed by a panel of school leaders including Kurt Unruh (Valor Christian High School), Jenn Thompson (Ontario Christian Schools), and Ben Thomas (KICS Rwanda), can be accessed here.[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on the ACSI blog.]
Dr. Lynn Swaner is the Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer at ACSI, where she develops strategies and leads initiatives 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. A published scholar and conference speaker, she is the lead editor of the book PIVOT: New Directions for Christian Education, co-author of Bring It to Life: Christian Education and the Transformative Power of Service-Learning, editor of the ACSI blog, and podcaster for ACSI’s Moving Forward podcast. She received her EdD from Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.