High School Student Standing in front of a school bus

Has Covid-19 Driven a Permanent Wedge Between America’s Public and Private Schools?

If you live in many towns and cities across the United States, you are familiar with the great divide between the public and private schools near you.

  • First, there is the issue of cost – even though about 25% of students at private schools do in fact receive some form of financial aid.
  • Second, there is social division – in some communities, public school and private school families live side-by-side but might never get to connect. You can see this “on the ground” in some areas, where public school and private school students commute to school in different ways, sometimes passing each other with barely a nod of greeting.
  • Third, there is a measurable, if sometimes slight, difference in the colleges and universities that are attended by members of each cohort. The shape of this discrepancy varies by a number of factors, including community-wide income levels. In a public high school located in a lower or middle-income community, for example, a certain percentage of graduating high school students will gain admission to selective colleges and universities. At private schools, a larger percentage of graduates will attend those same selective schools.

And Now, More Differences

Just last week, we were speaking with an administrator at an exclusive private school who told us that a new schism has evolved recently, due to Covid-19.

“In this community,“ she told us, “parents of public school students are generally upset because while their children are still taking classes remotely online, our classrooms are open again and we are welcoming virtually all our students to come in and take classes in person.”

One secondary effect of this trend, she told us, is that applications to attend her school next year are up, because parents who have the financial means are willing to pay more for the assurance that their children will be attending in-person classes next September.

Will the Gap Narrow Between Public and Private Schools?

“Why are public schools closed when nearby private schools are open?”, an article Al Tompkins wrote for Poynter.org last July, offered some answers to that question that are still just as valid today, if not more so.

Here are some of the reasons Tompkins cites that explains why the public and private school experience may remain quite different in the period while America is recovering from the pandemic.

  • Compared to private schools, public schools generally have the money to sanitize and maintain classrooms.
  • Private school students generally have better access to technology than public school students do. And that technological edge could remain a significant differentiator in the future.
  • Private schools are generally less limited by regulations than public schools are. They can do more of what they want to do. Plus, private schools are generally more spacious than public schools, especially those that occupy older school buildings. And more space means more flexibility in the way classes are presented.
  • Due to lost income and other financial hardships, some private-school families are planning to enroll their children in public schools to save money – if only for a year or two.
  • In a time when commuting to school via bus has become less attractive, some families are discovering the advantages of sending their children to nearby public schools. They are remembering that their kids can walk to school or be driven in family-owned vehicles. So for some families, transportation can make public school a more attractive option than private.

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