At the June NYCorp (The New York Council of Relocation Professionals) event, Elizabeth Sawyer, CEO of Bennett International & friends gathered over the airwaves. With her usual charm, candor & humor Elizabeth sets the table
Please enjoy watching Elizabeth Sawyer talking about the topography of the NYC private school scene in the midst of COVID-19.
To see the whole scintillating discussion with Jose Rasco on the economy, Jason L. Rogers on immigration & Christine Haney on real estate, please click here.
The transcript below has been edited for reading clarity.
Elizabeth: ...and of course now I hear the lawn mowers coming, so if somebody's signal becomes inaudible and awful... one second! Hold that thought, talk amongst yourselves.
(Elizabeth gets up to close her window to shut out some of the outside noise)
Christine: Ahh, the joys of working from home...
Elizabeth: Sorry about that! All right. The windows aren't thick enough, but, where was I? Oh yes, school re-openings.
Most schools are currently planning on multiple fronts. They're hoping and planning for in-person schooling, but many of them are working on a hybrid model, planning for a blend of in-person and online schooling. That might happen with staggered schedules. It might happen where, for example, one group is in for a week but not in the next week, or groups of children might come in only every other day. A brief reopening before the summer break gives schools an opportunity to focus on the kinks.
So, what does this mean for the world of relocation and specifically for the greater New York area? The reality is, school is opening, and however we feel about it, wherever we might be, wherever your assignees might be thinking of going, school is going to be happening, and families and their employers should be prepared for this.
Although schools have been closed, Admissions Offices in private and international schools have remained open throughout the pandemic, and they've really been bending over backward to make the whole application process as user-friendly and as rich as possible for prospective families. Their application forms were already online, but obviously, schools have moved to virtual tours. So, like what Christine was just talking about with housing, virtual tours were an option before, but now it's really become the norm - presenting their school as fully as they can through a virtual tour.
Schools have been increasingly flexible when it comes to testing. So, for example, New York private schools require the ISEE test. Well, there have not been any tests scheduled [due to COVID-19], so schools have become much more flexible in terms of being willing to take different kinds of assessments of students. For families who have not been able to track down a teacher to write a recommendation, schools have perhaps been willing to accept recommendations from another source, or if a teacher couldn't send a recommendation letter, they would speak with that teacher instead. So, the admissions cycle has been happening all along. That said, a lot of schools are still really unsure of what their rosters will look like for the Fall. They currently have families who are undecided about sending their kids back to school. This goes especially for schools that serve ex-pats because the ex-pat population still remains a little bit "up in the air".
So, our advice is, if you have an assignee whom you are thinking of moving, and you've had that natural feeling of "we want to wait and see if this assignment really happens, and then we'll focus on the schooling," don't wait. Whether you use us, another education company or a DSP, families should really be encouraged to proceed with school applications wherever they think they may be going - even if there's a chance that they won't follow through.
There is some good news in all of this for families who are moving to the New York area. For one thing, with a lot of New York private schools, they would typically have finalized their rosters and practically closed their doors to admissions by this point in the year. And so when families find out in April/May/June that they're being asked to relocate, there are schools that will consider late applicants - either just because they happen to have a spot in a given year or because they work on "rolling admissions" and they cater more to international families. There's always a group of schools where there is a very slim chance of being accepted if you've missed application deadlines. And of course, because of the way these things go, when all of these assignees are moving - never with their average children, but with their brilliant children - they come into the process with a list, saying "my colleagues tell me these are the best schools in New York, and I really don't want to take this assignment unless my kids can get into one of these schools." And usually, step one of the process of anybody helping a family with education consulting is to help them put down that unrealistic expectation. So, the good news right now, without being opportunistic about it, is that a lot of schools that would not usually have openings currently do have openings, or they're hedging their bets.
There was, as you all know, an exodus from New York when all of this started, and there are a certain number of families out there who were saying, you know, "hey, we kind of like living in Connecticut," or, "we like Long Island, maybe we don't actually want to go back to the City," or, "maybe we're not sure we want to pay for private school tuition if our kids are going to be sitting at home doing this online, even if just part-time." If their kids were part of the rugby team, even if they do go back to school for classes, they're not going to be in a body heap, so families may not want to sign that contract this year. This means we have a local population that is a little undecided, and a lot of the relocation "churn" has been on hold. So, a lot of the schools that would usually only look at kids in an intake year (kindergarten, 6th grade or 9th grade) are now saying they will consider a kid for 7th grade, having yet to finalize their class lists. And so, for those families who are perhaps at this point saying, "maybe we will relocate after all," there may actually be more possibilities for them than there would have been in a normal year.
The other thing that we're seeing is that schools are changing their contract and deposit/refund policies. Traditionally, when a school would offer a family a place for their children, families have a certain amount of time to sign a contract, then pay a deposit. Some families occasionally change their minds, saying "my kids got into another school, we don't we don't want to use that school after all - can you help us get the deposit back?", and the news for them was actually usually even worse than expected - not only had they signed a binding contract and will not get their deposit back, but if they had really read that contract they would have seen that they were responsible for the entire year's tuition. It's a sad reality, but it was written that way to prevent families from doing exactly that. Schools right now are being a lot more flexible. It's a question that we are asking a lot of international schools - "could you please send us your latest policy on refunds? Should a family accept a spot right now for their three kids in London, if they find they can't move because there's another outbreak?", and all of them that we've been in touch with are being very reasonable, saying, "if a situation changes and a family can't relocate because of COVID-19, we will, of course, make a refund." Some of them have even made partial refunds for the Spring semester, acknowledging that kids couldn't actually enjoy the full program that they were offering.
I would use this as a moment to say, please do encourage assignees to read those school contracts carefully, as they always should, and also to specifically ask a school some new questions - "what will your policy be if we cannot relocate because of an outbreak?" Also, a brand-new question, but it will be one for the future for all of us - "what did you do for your students during COVID-19? What do you have sitting on the back burner that you will provide for them, should you need to jump into distance learning again?"
As with all things, as we evolve, the whole process changes. I know that for us in the education world, this has provided a whole new addition to what we will look at as we assess schools - "what is your what is your plan B?"
Over the years, Bennett International Education Consultancy has worked with hundreds of corporations, many of them Fortune 500 companies, providing school advisement services—preschool through university—to the dependents of relocating employees. In addition to education placement, our Education Research and Analysis team provides customized consulting for corporations in need of assistance with a range of education issues: education policy writing and benchmarking, tuition studies, group move advisement and planning, education “site assessments,” and the creation of remote or difficult-location education solutions. Whatever a company’s education issue, wherever it is, Bennett has the experience and the expertise to help.