Updated: Jun 24, 2021
Here's a joke I hope to be mocked with next fall: A college kid and a second grader walk into a bar. Bartender says, "Pop quiz today, fellas." Probably not funny in the first place, but I'll put it out of its misery with this explanation: If the prospect of an in person start to the fall semester remains equivocal into the summer, the students at the opposite poles of the formal schooling continuum will be the likeliest to find an alternative to an expensive 2020 - 2021 school year fractured by interruptions or otherwise focused on remote learning experiences. As a result, some independent elementary school kids and the counterparts their parents aspire for them to be, students at prestigious colleges and universities, will take a mulligan on 2020 - 2021, find an alternative, take a gap year. They might even find each other. A clever college kid in charge of a couple of second graders, with a curriculum that might include graphing George Jones-to-Merle Haggard hits on the jukebox at Moe's re-opened tavern, could be a better bet than a school year with the reliability of AM radio on the Blue Ridge Highway. . . in a car with kids who've been squabbling in the back seat for months.
Colleges and universities have begun to make tentative announcements outlining alternate scenarios for next year, including the possibility of delaying the start of the year, canceling the first semester altogether, segmenting the first semester into smaller chunks that more easily transition to remote learning. Concurrently, news outlets have canvased residential college students for their take on it all. Many of them say they'd sooner take a gap year than set out on more remote learning with none of the independence building experiences, or endure a school year scattershot with send-homes and the cancellation of sports, arts and other college-life-centric experiences. And, although many of their parents might have something else to say about the matter (I'm confident that our parents would have accepted just about any conditions after my twin sister and I squabbled and misbehaved away our freshman summer), budget planners at American colleges and universities are confident that a substantial, budget-eroding number of students will not enroll/re-enroll for the 2020 - 2021 year under these circumstances.
Elementary age kids are situated at an analogous developmental moment, one in which their growing autonomy and socialization is highly dependent on being with their age peers. This fact is compounded by the day-care role that school plays for parents of elementary age kids. Working from home with our kids, we were amused at first by our Zoom-mooning toddlers, not so much anymore. With the same equivocal prospect for in person schooling next year at independent schools, one can imagine parents of young kids looking for a money-saving school alternative with a tiny fraction of the variables that could disrupt the traditional school year: presence of sickness on campus, shifting pedagogical plans and school geography, and--worst case scenarios--mid-year teacher lay-offs or school closure. I suspect that independent day middle and high school students will be more likely to hang in with their school's program. Closer to the great American sorting hat moment of college admission, they've got more invested already, more at stake, and--banal but essential--they can stay home while their parents go to work. With elementary age kids, however, especially early elementary age kids, it's easy to imagine some of the parents in our independent school communities creating clever solutions at the intersection of affordability, convenience and effectiveness, especially in a market that could be flooded with talented college kids and recently laid-off teachers.
As I said, I sincerely hope to be mocked with this troubling vision sometime next fall when we're all back at school, but I also hope that schools are balancing the optimistic energy they're applying now to school life with sober efforts to examine budgets under several scenarios and preparing themselves to make very difficult decisions. A majority of independent schools--especially those with elementary and boarding programs--could struggle to remain stable, even viable and will need very disciplined plans to endure next year with enough momentum to thrive in a post-pandemic world that we can more reasonably expect next spring.