Private and Christian schools throughout Forsyth County reported that enrollment is up following a four-month period of uncertainty while parents struggled to decide how to start their kids’ 2020-21 school year.
Several Christian schools in the county took out Paycheck Protection Loans in April, including Pinecrest Academy, Covenant Christian Academy, Fideles Christian School and Horizon Christian Academy — which all took out loans of $150,000 or more.
School leaders said that the need for the extra financial assistance came between March 15 and July 15 when schools in the area had not yet come out with plans on how to begin the 2020-21 school year during the pandemic.
“Initially, our re-enrollment for the current school year was slow due to parents being uncertain as to what school in the fall would look like, so I think they were hesitant to sign up for school,” said Horizon Christian Academy Administration Board Chair Tonya Phongsavanh. “In a normal year, we have some families pay 100% of next year’s tuition in the spring as they enroll, and so there wasn’t as much of that.”
Pinecrest Academy spokeswoman Vivian Heard also said that their school was forced to cancel several large, annual fundraising events that were scheduled early in the pandemic, including the school’s annual Gala, which Heard said is their biggest fundraising event of the year.
School leaders said that the funds taken out through the PPP loans were used to pay school staff during this time when enrollment payments and other funds were delayed. Heard said that Pinecrest’s loan of slightly more than $1 million also helped in their efforts to set up extra COVID-19 precautions.
“These COVID-19 protocols included physical items needed for in-person instruction — desk barriers, shields for teachers, face coverings, sanitizing stations, signage, etc,” Heard said. “We were also able to put plans in place for possible virtual learning by enhancing our technology resources.”
The money also helped Horizon and Covenant Christian to set aside scholarship funds for families who have lost their jobs or need extra help during the pandemic to pay for tuition.
Covenant is contributing to and taking donations from community members for an “Adopt a Family” fund, and Headmaster Johnathan Arnold said that the school has given out $250,000 in financial relief to families this year.
Phongsavanh also said that Horizon put extra funds into their Warrior scholarship, and the school is trying its best to spread out those funds to try to help out every family who needs it with their tuition.
Now that schools in Forsyth and surrounding counties have come out with plans for the 2020-21 school year, however, local private schools have seen their enrollment numbers skyrocket.
“In my 19 years here at Covenant, it’s our second-best enrollment period that we’ve ever had,” Arnold said. “We lost March 15 to July 15 in enrollment, but since July 15 — in the past 20 days — we’ve enrolled about 40 new kids. So we’ve been able to consolidate about four months of recruiting into about three weeks.”
Arnold said that the spike in enrollment came about partially because, once schools came out with plans for opening school during the pandemic, parents were better able to see what options they had available to them and finally make a decision.
Covenant has seen more families from Fulton County enrolling in the school. Arnold said that since Fulton County public schools are beginning the school year strictly online, many families in the county are looking for other options. With Covenant situated in South Forsyth, it is close enough for families in North Fulton to send their kids to school.
“Fulton did not give that choice, and so we’ve become the choice for the Fulton County parents to have an option for [in-person] school,” Arnold said.
Phongsavanh said that private schools also offer families more stability than public schools can offer right now. While public schools are reopening, depending on the number of COVID-19 cases in the state and the safety of students, they could be mandated to close in the future, as they were this past spring.
“Private schools will have the ability to make their own decision after considering what’s best for the students and our families,” Phongsavanh said. “So I think that’s another factor that parents are considering is if public schools close, private schools may stay open.”
Phonsgsavanh also said that Christian school members are part of a loyal, close-knit community that many might find comforting during the pandemic. She said that many parents have offered to help out the school and other families to make sure that everyone is safe and healthy while at school.
One parent offered to donate germ air purifiers for every classroom, and another built and donated picnic tables so that kids can enjoy their lunch outside, helping to make social distancing during lunchtime easier.
“While we have families who are not comfortable with sending their children back to the classroom, and through the usual attrition, we have lost some families,” Heard said. “On the other hand, because of our confidence in and preparation for opening in-person this month, following all C.D.C., state, and local COVID-19 safety measures, we’ve been attracting families who prefer that their children return to the classroom and are interested in what a private education might offer.”
Now that enrollment is back up and plans for the school year are set in place, school leaders said that they are confident and excited to start welcoming kids back to school starting this week on Thursday, Aug. 6.
“We’re good, and I think it’s the families sticking together and saying, ‘we’re going to ride this out, and we’re going to make it work. Show patience and grace, and figure this out as we go,’” Phongsavanh said.