NAIS Staff Predictions for the Future of Independent Schools

Now that 2020 is behind us, we look forward to this year with optimism and hope. But with the pandemic still raging, it’s important to reflect on what it’s taught us, and how our world will permanently change.  The way we think about hygiene—handwashing, touching our faces, and handshakes—will likely be here to stay. Online shopping was already dominating retail, and it will continue at an accelerated pace. More businesses will downsize or eliminate office space, and many employees will become full-time teleworkers. We’ll also surely see a rethinking of business travel, and large-scale events will increasingly become more hybrid in nature. What about the world of independent schools? Will we see major changes? A handful of NAIS staff members pondered this and in the spirit of looking ahead to the new year and beyond, shared some thoughts and predictions.
The value of human connection and interaction will increase. Pandemic teaching will create a new imperative for and appreciation of community. As campuses begin to reopen, more priority will be put on human connection; finding time to be together; diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice; and social-emotional learning. The result will be more balance, appropriate pacing, time to breathe, appreciation for each other, and joy.
Many schools will keep online learning offerings, and a few will invest in these programs in a big way. Some will move to online parent-teacher conferences held on a more frequent basis. Others will have a group of teachers and staff who are full-time remote and possibly part-time. Some will run virtual classes for some students, and others will offer virtual tutoring. Some schools will figure out how to increase total enrollment by leveraging a combination of online delivery and radically changing the way they do scheduling for high school grades and perhaps some middle school grades.
Wealthy tech entrepreneurs will continue their attempts to innovate K-12 education delivery models. To the extent that hybrid and distance learning are more widely adopted, these models will likely expand.
The forces disrupting the independent school market will continue to accelerate. Overall, the well-established bigger schools will thrive because their scale allows them to provide more resources and opportunities. The smaller, debt-burdened schools will struggle. The declining birth rate coupled with financially struggling millennial families and a volatile economy will challenge the business model of many schools.
The declining reputation of the US in some countries, as evidenced in the latest Pew research may have a long-term impact on the international student market, which could be especially problematic for boarding schools. And while pods, as currently conceived, will not present a huge threat to schools, they represent an accelerating entrepreneurial force that began before the pandemic and will lead to more school options and increasing disruptive energy in our industry.
Schools will face new financial realities. More schools will consider some sort of tuition reset as they face the realities of the post-COVID-19 market. Many will do so to accommodate public school families who have joined them this year. Many families will save more aggressively. Schools will need to adjust their aid formulas to account for greater volatility in the job market and parents’ lower tolerance for risk. 
Schools that were struggling prior to COVID-19 may merge or close. Others will emerge from the pandemic worse for the wear financially. Without adequate financial resources and the drive to envision and enact real transformation, they will operate in a constant state of contraction and reactivity, barely surviving from year to year. As tuitions increase, more schools will struggle to meet their annual fund targets, which will put even more pressure on an already stressed financial model.
Schools that were able to operate safely on-campus will see demand increase, but they will have difficulty going back to their pre-COVID-19 expense budgets. The incremental expenses that were just for COVID-19 will become difficult to distinguish from normal operations. Schools might stop paying for COVID testing and personal protective equipment, but they won’t be able to let go of all of the additional teacher support staff or substitutes or even the trailers that were needed to accommodate social distancing. While they may innovate learning by integrating more technology and distance learning options, they will remain on the high cost-per-student financial model.  
The rush to build will slow down. Many schools are now questioning the large investments they’ve made in buildings and how the costs of maintaining them will make them even more economically vulnerable in the years ahead. Schools with underused buildings that they are unwilling or unable to sell will consider alternatives that meet emerging community needs, such as assisted living facilities for adults with lingering health challenges related to COVID-19 and remote workspaces as more companies forgo brick and mortar offices.
The admission process will look different. Many schools have eliminated admission testing requirements during the pandemic, and many will abandon them altogether to advance equity or will invest in different testing approaches. The move away from traditional admission testing will be a key component in a reimagined admission process that will step beyond the traditional timeline in favor of a rolling admission process that will embrace mid-year enrollment and rapid decisioning and more tuition support.
Staff churn will be higher than normal over the next five years. The pressure and uncertainty of the pandemic will take a toll. And at the same time, there will be a new generation of entrepreneurial educators who are inspired by the innovation potential in our schools. Schools that can find, hire, and empower this diverse and exciting group of next generation educators will thrive.
Tutoring services will proliferate. Millions of students, particularly low-income students, will be one or two years behind grade-level. Tutoring and supplemental learning services to “catch up” will be needed. Larger numbers of affluent parents will homeschool and hire tutors. The more entrepreneurial among them will turn their pods into microschools.
Schools will adapt their curricula in ways that truly drive student engagement. They will begin addressing real, pressing challenges through more project-based learning, which will improve student agency and could result in exciting innovations to help society move forward. More schools, recognizing the benefits of outdoor learning and fresh air, will incorporate the natural world into their curricula and master planning initiatives. And some schools will launch alternative pathways to higher education, including internships, apprenticeships, and expanded gap year programs.
We still have much to learn about how our world will change. This collection is not definitive, but it does offer a new perspective to help us start the new year.