Mixed Picture For Local Private Schools During Pandemic

Nov 10, 2020

Stuart Hall is a day and boarding private school in Staunton.
Credit Bridget Manley

Just as public schools have had to adjust to the COVID-19 pandemic, private schools faced the same challenges to safe instruction.  They also faced shrinking revenue and tightening budgets. WMRA’s Bridget Manley has this report.

Robert Schuster taught English and coached an academic team for four years at Stuart Hall - a day and boarding private school in Staunton that is internationally renowned and where students from around the world come to live and study.

When COVID hit, the school transitioned successfully to an online format, and many teachers signed their contracts to teach at the school for the 2020-2021 academic year.

Following graduation in May, the school called a Zoom meeting for select teachers, where Schuster says administration officials revealed things were much more dire at the school.

ROBERT SCHUSTER: There’s been a budget forecast that the school’s revenue is going to take this massive hit, because of COVID restrictions and the projected amount of students who won’t be able to come back to campus, and so there was an estimate - it could be between this percent and this percent, it was a significant percent - and then it basically led to ‘so, because of that, unfortunately, all of your contracts for next year are being cancelled.’

The school had to make drastic cuts, paring down to just ten teachers - that’s about half the staff - and cutting a number of classes and programs.

SCHUSTER: Of course, a lot of people were very upset. There were some people who were crying, there were some people who turned their cameras off. A lot of people started asking questions pretty frantically.  The gist of it was that they were going to retain a certain number, like a small number of teachers, to provide basically only ‘core classes.’ All sports were cut. All electives were cut. All music and performing arts are cut. All foreign languages are cut.

Credit Michael Robinson

MICHAEL ROBINSON: We were like private schools all over,

Michael Robinson is the Head of Stuart Hall School.

ROBINSON:  …But I think being a small boarding school - a residential school - what was coming into full view, in terms of the enrollment and the revenue and the economic impact of the pandemic was going to be really, really significant for small boarding schools.  Added onto that for Stuart Hall was our boarding population is international students.

For other private schools in the Valley, budget cuts are also part of the COVID picture.  But the irony is that some of them have seen an increase in enrollment.  That's because of public schools mostly going virtual at the start of the school year.

Full Disclosure: Stuart Hall School currently underwrites programming on WMRA, and Eastern Mennonite School was an underwriter earlier this year.

Eastern Mennonite is one of those schools. Paul Leaman is the Head of EMS.

Credit Paul Leaman

PAUL LEAMAN: We have been able to keep everyone on, and that was primarily thanks to the federal government's Paycheck Protection Program. Without that, there’s no way we could be doing as well.

Leaman says they have seen revenue drops in many of the traditional areas that private schools can make extra money, such as renting out dining halls and auditoriums for events and parties.

LEAMAN: We usually had our facility rented out a lot, and those have really been squelched.  A lot of rental income isn’t happening.

Credit Ron Hoch

Ron Hoch is the Head of Redeemer Classical School in Keezletown. They have seen enrollment soar in the 2020-21 academic year.

HOCH: Enrollment is up about 9% for us this year over last year, yeah. And we had a pretty strong waitlist in pre-k through fourth grade this year, which we typically don’t have a waitlist, and we have a waitlist. We had to close, actually, those classes, cap those classes. We had a lot of interest this year.

Meanwhile, Stuart Hall has developed a new educational model following a strategic six month planning process. Michael Robinson says they are looking at what the school does best, and will try to continue to deliver what makes Stuart Hall unique – especially its attraction for international students.

Eastern Mennonite School in Harrisonburg.
Credit Bridget Manley

ROBINSON: So much of the things that students, faculty, parents and alumni said that they really valued most about the Stuart Hall experience were either inextricably linked or woven into the fact that we are a boarding school, and a residential school, with a global perspective, a global demographic footprint. So, focusing on being the best boarding school we can be.

Redeemer Classical School in Keezletown, just east of Harrisonburg.
Credit Bridget Manley

They will reopen the boarding school this spring, with a COVID plan in place if the virus spreads. They have also decided to phase out the elementary school after the current students age out in 2023.