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Independent schools struggling to keep their doors open

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This is as a result of parents not being able to pay school fees as a result of the lockdown.

File image. Picture: Attila Balazs MTI via AP

MANY independent schools are struggling to keep their doors open as parents, hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, battle to pay school fees.

Schools have been forced to slash teachers’ salaries to make up for the shortfall; and in fee-paying public schools, teachers and other auxiliary staff have also been retrenched and had pay cuts.

“It’s a major problem,” said Ebrahim Ansur, general secretary of the National Alliance of Independent School Associations (Naisa), which has 1 400 members.

“Currently, what’s carrying the schools is the drastic reduction in teachers’ salaries. Whether the schools will be able to sustain this … Things are very, very tenuous for the independent school sector at the moment.”

Teachers’ salaries had been cut by up to 40%. “That’s probably a large percentage because that’s the reduction in payment of school fees from parents, in fact, in some cases, it’s higher than that. So what will happen is that parents are asking for time or discounts from schools.”

Most of Naisa’s membership comprises middle to low-fee schools. “High-fee schools may have reserves to carry them for an extended period of time, but most parents are middle-class parents and salaried parents, who don’t have reserves.

“We’ve made appeals to the government to look at some kind of special fund but our pleas have fallen on deaf ears so far. They’ve bailed out other industries and we serve quite a vital service to the country as a whole.”

There is a lot of uncertainty, he said. “The full impact will only be felt towards the end of the year, when the schools are doing enrolments for the new year.”

Paul Colditz, the chief executive of the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools (Fedsas), said in fee-paying public schools there had been an increase in parents applying for exemption from paying school fees.

“We’ve also seen the situation where parents have withheld their payments, despite the fact they are able to pay, because they incorrectly argue, ‘my child is not receiving tuition therefore I don’t have to pay’… Parents who have had their salaries cut, lost their income, their business, their jobs, obviously they are entitled in terms of the school fee exemption regulations to apply.

“They may not simply withhold their payment, they must apply and then if they meet the criteria, the governing body must either exempt them, wholly, partially or conditionally.”

Schools are suffering, he said. “They have really been hit hard. Schools have lost millions and many are in dire straits financially at this stage.

“The other thing that people forget is that many schools rely on fund-raising activities and those activities have stopped …

“The biggest single item on fee-paying schools’ budget is salaries. Many schools have had to cut the salaries of teachers employed by the SGB (school governing body) and have had to retrench teachers because of the inability to pay school fees.”

SGBs employed around 150 000 people, a third of whom are teachers. “The rest are administrative staff, cleaners, bus and taxi drivers, ground staff, etc. A lot of those people have lost their jobs and they are still losing their jobs. It’s a disaster.”

Schools would have to go down to their absolute core business of the delivery of the curriculum. “You’ll see a lot of extracurricular activities that will not be taking place.”

Anne Baker of the Catholic Institute of Education, said preschools are at great risk. “Preschools attached to a school may be able to manage a little better, but definitely we’ve seen parents don’t send the little ones back …

“It’s a difficult time and I’m not sure what will end up happening in the independent sector. Some schools might close, we don’t know how many. Some of our very-low-fee schools that are subsidised might be able to survive, because they run on such a shoestring budget. We may see a great reduction in school fees because I think if schools want to keep going, they have to charge less …

“Parents need to understand they chose that school … but look, if parents lose their jobs, there’s nothing they can do. So we have to be sympathetic to that. But you can’t pay your teachers on compassion.”

Lebogang Montjane, the executive director of the Independent Schools’ Association of SA, said: “Those schools that don’t have any reserves are finding themselves in a difficult financial situation. We do know of pre-primary schools that have closed permanently while others are doing across the board pay cuts to survive.

“We do anticipate that sports coaches and that kind of auxiliary staff will end up being retrenched. However, a great advantage of the pandemic is that independent schools have managed quickly to adapt.”

Mike Aitken, the managing director of Trinityhouse in Randpark Ridge, said the closure of schools did not lead to any significant cost savings and, in fact, ongoing online learning had added to the school’s cost.

“It is not feasible to provide any form of blanket fee discounting. We understand the economic hardship faced by some of our parents and have attempted to ensure that they get as much assistance as possible to continue their children’s access to quality education.”

Aitken said the school was curtailing operational costs without furloughing its educators. “Even so, operational savings have been minimal, as the fixed costs associated with facilities, such as maintenance, insurance and security, remain.”

Savo Ceprnich, spokesperson for the Deutsche Internationale Schule Johannesburg, said about 15% of parents could not pay or were receiving a Covid-19 reduction for school fees.

“It has affected everybody and our school is no exception. Although the school is supported by the German Government who has provided some relief, it still finds itself in a difficult predicament.

“We have offered reductions to parents in financial distress to give them short-term relief. We also offer payment plans to pay school fees over a longer period.”

Roger Loring, the executive head at St Dominic’s School, said the situation at the school was fluid and changing with each passing month. “Covid-19 has created many unforeseen and unanticipated costs like masks and sanitisation.

“Parents have assumed that schools are making operational savings, which may not necessarily be the case. It’s also been fairly costly running two systems, an online learning platform and having pupils back at school.

“The teachers are exhausted from all the preparation required to teach competently,” Loring said.

Alistair Stewart from St Stithians College said that although less than 10% of families had indicated severe payment stress, the sound financial management and stringent budget controls over an extended period had helped the school manage the fiscal pressures of this stage of the lockdown.

“Parent and community support for St Stithians College has been positive and support for our online academic programme and our teachers has been heart-warming.”

Stewart said the school had asked parents who are in financial difficulty to engage with it and agree to payment solutions.

Mari Lategan, marketing and communications executive at Curro Holdings, said the schools group had set up a Covid-19 care fund of R50 million to assist parents who were struggling to pay school fees.

“We understand the crippling economic implications that the coronavirus has brought about, and the effect that it has had on several families’ financial situations.

“In light of this, Curro is grateful that it is able to assist parents with some relief,” she said.