Coronavirus and private schools: the landscape going forward

In mid-April, a few weeks into the initial coronavirus lockdown period, pupils were adapting to remote learning, if any were available, while their parents had to come to grips with the sudden stark reality of the devasting impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the economy - and their livelihoods.

While private schools surveyed by Fin24 at the time indicated they were able to continue remaining at the top of their game as far as providing online education, it was unclear at that point to what extent parents' ability to pay for private tuition would be impacted by the "new normal".

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga on Saturday met with education trade unions who raised concerns about the readiness of schools to start with a phased reopening with Grades 7 to 12 this week. The minister is due to address the nation on the matter at 18:00 on Sunday, News24 reported.

It raises the question of whether it has become more clear just how far-reaching the impact of the lockdown has been - as reflected in even the well-heeled's ability to pay private school fees - or not.

Projections by National Treasury indicate that job losses in SA could potentially reach up to seven million as a result of the coronavirus pandemic - taking the country's record unemployment rate as high as 50%.

In the view of Dr Morne Mostert, director of the Institute for Futures Research at Stellenbosch University, the very definition of "a school" is being revisited in South Africa and that has implications for financial obligations.

"The idea that schools exist to offer knowledge is really outdated. Schools produce almost no new knowledge themselves. Therefore, the knowledge they sell is not their own, and is all available on the internet for free," he explains.

"So, what exactly are parents buying? Parents will soon be posing it. Competitive schools of the future will have a compelling value proposition around social, intellectual and professional development, supported by an attractive brand. A new era for schools is dawning."

What private schools are doing

Private school group ADvTECH, owner of Crawford Schools, says its strategy is to curtail operational costs without furloughing their educators.

Its CEO Roy Douglas said in a statement that institutions need to sustain those things that differentiate them, including their staff.

ADvTECH has already provided targeted financial relief of R24 million to more than 5 300 families who sought support due to the impact of the pandemic. Its annual bursary support programme of approximately R200 million is currently benefiting 13 246 students.

Curro Holdings - the largest JSE-listed independent school operator in the country - has set aside a Covid-19 Care Fund of R50 million to assist parents struggling financially to pay school fees. In addition, all parents will qualify for some relief in June 2020.

Mari Lategan, executive: marketing and communications at Curro, says it understands the crippling economic implications that the coronavirus has brought about, and the effect that it has had on several families' financial situations.

"Curro has successfully transitioned from in-class learning to a remote and online learning strategy and would like to assure that it is committed to providing all of its learners with a full year's schooling. The safety and well-being of its learners, staff and parent community remains its utmost priority," says Lategan.

Furthermore, Curro has recently launched Curro Online – the group's first online home-schooling programme that offers a flexible, yet structured learning option where parents need to take on the responsibility of teaching and continuous supervision.

At the Cape Town boys school Bishops, one of the country's oldest private schools not owned by a listed entity, only a very small number of parents have requested deferred payments or a payment plan.

"We have been sympathetic to these requests. We have continued to deliver the academic, pastoral and cultural programmes online and the response has been overwhelmingly positive," says principal Guy Pearson.

"We will do whatever we can to cut and manage expenditure and the intention is to pass on any savings to parents, but this can only be determined towards the end of the year when we have a full picture."

At the 148-year old Hilton College in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, every effort is made not to lose boys as a result of the financial impact of this pandemic, says George Harris.

It has offered a 12.5% fee remission for Term 2 to any parents that would like to take up the offer.

"The reason for adopting this method of 'opting in' rather than a blanket remission to all parents, is simply that the more parents who elect not to take up the offer, the more Hilton is able to help those that are more acutely in need of financial assistance," explains Harris.

Michaelhouse, an independent senior boarding school for boys founded in 1896 and also set in the KZN Midlands, is considering a fee freeze, or at minimum a very low, inflation-related increase until the economy improves.

A rebate on board and tuition, which exceeds the marginal savings of boys not being on campus, has been committed to parents.

According to Murray Witherspoon, director of marketing at Michaelhouse, says that, as a not-for-profit organisation, firm cost control measures to allow ongoing affordability in 2020 and beyond have been implemented.

Furthermore, the school's rector, executive and management committees have pledged salary sacrifices and board members have pledged to match all donations to the school's Covid Support Fund up to an aggregate of R1 million with a similar amount being contributed by the School's Trusts.

At Herschel Girls' School in Cape Town, founded in 1922, an extensive protocol has been developed to ensure compliancy with pandemic regulations when pupils return.

According to the head of the school, Heather Goedeke, they have been addressing individual financial needs of parents on a "one-on one" basis to assist with fee payment options. With regard to the small boarding cohort, they will be offering parents a pro-rata rebate on boarding fees for Term 2.

"We will defer a decision on general fees rebate until later in the year when we have more clarity on the impact of Covid-19 on the school's financial sustainability, particularly as Herschel is a non-profit organisation," says Goedeke.

At another well-known girls' school - Roedean in Johannesburg, founded in 1903 - the board has identified certain savings in variable costs as a result of the extended closure of the campus and the cancellation of various planned school, recreational, sporting and educational events. Further savings were identified by reducing certain school services and amenities.

"In the final analysis the costs of compliance offset the savings in variable costs, allowing the school to run more or less in line with its original 2020 break even fee and cost budget," says executive head Fiona Rogers.

"We deal with all financial issues on a case by case basis and in a strictly confidential manner, and therefore cannot comment on the financial affairs of parents nor any individual requests that may have been made to the school."

Another example of how provision is made for the increase interest in online schooling is the Valenture Institute, a global private online high school, accredited by Pearson Edexcel and also available in South Africa.

It was founded by Robert Paddock of GetSmarter-fame. He believes in moving away from the "one size fits all" approach to education. It allows students to be social and to develop deeper critical thinking skills needed to find jobs that might not yet exist, in his view. 

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