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6 strategies to show why independent schools are invaluable during COVID-19

April 10, 2020

Admissions teams have one thing to be thankful for: the majority of open houses, testing days, family visits, and “shadow days” concluded before this coronavirus arrived, and many have locked in initial acceptances and deposits. But the spread of COVID-19 has created financial uncertainty for millions of families across the US, and independent schools need a plan to ensure that both current and prospective families continue to see private school tuition as an essential investment through this time. Here are six strategies that you can deploy to show why independent schools are invaluable during COVID-19.

1. Address coronavirus-specific pain-points to ensure happy parents, strong referrals

Yielding next year’s class will require prospective parents to feel confident about their investment. As existing family referrals play a huge role in this decision, it is more important than ever that current families also continue to see the value of their investment during this critical period.

To prove that tuition dollars are well spent, schools are pushing for their faculty to develop creative, asynchronous lesson plans and virtual experiences. But at a time when so many aspects of life are in flux, what parents and students crave most is consistency, familiarity, and connection. In this sense, the independent school value proposition may never have been stronger, so independent schools do not need to reinvent the instructional wheel.

To ensure consistency and familiarity, St. Anthony’s Catholic High School (SACHS) in San Antonio, TX, adopted the mantra: “Business as usual…but digitally.”


Attendance rate for classes at St. Anthony's Catholic High School
Attendance rate for classes at St. Anthony’s Catholic High School

They have maintained institutional rituals, such as daily prayer and chapel services – gathering through Zoom rather than in person. The school has also created a modified version of a traditional school schedule. Students gather online for eight, forty-minute periods per day, Monday through Thursday, and a half-day schedule on Friday is dedicated to office hours, advising sessions, and homework. This consistent schedule has been well received by students, with teachers seeing a 99% attendance rate for their classes.

Perhaps most importantly, however, “business as usual” at SACHS has also enabled parents to maintain some sanity and consistency while their worlds have been upended. Their response has been to show gratitude through emails, social-media posts, and volunteering to provide meals for faculty and staff. The SACHS brand is thriving because they chose to focus on addressing what matters most to existing parents, right now.

2. Broadcast your successes to maximize community awareness

To build on the success of their transition to remote learning, St. Anthony’s Catholic High School thoughtfully crafted a press release to share with local news and media outlets.

While their relatively seamless shift was the result of an extended push to integrate the use of technology and online platforms into daily instruction prior to coronavirus, the message that they are now able to convey is: “We were ready to adapt. And so were our students.”

Within a week of communicating their readiness for this unexpected situation, SACHS received applications from two new families. While it will be important to strike the right tone in broadcasting successes at a time when others are scrambling, it’s worth recognizing that crises such as this present an opportunity for independent schools to demonstrate why they are much more than simply a “nice to have” for the families that they serve.

3. Leverage the virtual learning environment to integrate tomorrow’s students, today

Now is the time to show students what it feels like to be part of your school family. Wherever possible, enable those students who are admitted but not yet committed to participate in your school’s version of “business as usual.”

Most public schools are asking students to engage in minimal amounts of schoolwork each day, and some districts have halted instruction entirely. This means that your prospective students likely have more time on their hands than usual and their parents are looking for ways to keep them occupied. Inviting middle and high school students to join online classes, athletic coaching sessions, and social events are all great options to help prospective families feel included in your community at a time when connection and inclusion are more valuable than ever.

We heard from one independent school that making virtual classes accessible to prospects has led to multiple new inquiries and at least one immediate mid-year enrollment.

4. Make your website a virtual destination

Now is a great time to build or enhance your virtual tour. Your prospective families are searching for escapism while stuck at home. Help them to see your campus–not Hawaii–as the place that they want to be once the world returns to normal. There is evidence that families are looking for these virtual experiences: EAB’s YouVisit analysts have seen a significant uptick in traffic to campus virtual tours since the coronavirus sequestered families in their homes.

While investing in your online destination, be sure to also conduct essential audits of your existing website. EAB’s enrollment-focused web-audit toolkit provides guidance and strategies that can be quickly implemented to increase the effectiveness of your website from the second that prospective families land on your homepage.

5. To maintain enrollment momentum, don’t cancel your events

The Bush School in Seattle, WA, chose to replace their “decision day” events with virtual sessions, including dedicated events for Lower School families, Middle School families, and families of color. These events included virtual tours and even small group Q&A sessions with the Head of School and members of the faculty.

Although it’s too soon to tell, The Bush School is hoping that their efforts will help minimize attrition of admitted students.

6. Leverage your biggest advocates to seal the deal

As we mentioned at the top, nothing builds confidence in a significant purchase better than the validation of other happy customers. In fact, 75% of applicants for independent schools come through referrals from current families or families of alumni.


Of applicants for independent schools come through referrals from current families or alumni
Of applicants for independent schools come through referrals from current families or alumni

Therefore, generating word-of-mouth marketing should remain a priority throughout this crisis and beyond. Content and events that directly meet the needs of parents while their kids are home every day (fun daily schedules and virtual parent happy hours spring to mind) can spark organic conversation between your existing families and those considering whether to join your community. Follow these guidelines to keep positive messages about your school flowing to the right families:

  1. Use Facebook Insights to identify recent posts with the largest number of likes and shares
  2. Identify the individuals within your school community who comment and share school content most frequently (especially those in high interest, low enrollment areas)
  3. Generate new content that includes the children of those influencers
  4. Tag the parents in posts involving their children when sharing
  5. Track the performance of influencer posts for reach, shares, and engagement
  6. Respond to positive comments from influencers and others who engage with posts. Be a part of the conversation to build and reinforce natural relationships with parents

While working to generate word-of-mouth marketing, be sure to equip parent ambassadors with informed talking points about your school’s response to coronavirus. Continuing to pair current families with prospects will help you to influence the narrative as much as possible during this critical decision period. For more detailed guidance, use our online guide to build a structured approach to word-of-mouth marketing in your schools.

The financial uncertainty ahead will force families to make difficult choices about what to invest in over the coming months, and so independent schools cannot afford to lose contact and engagement with prospects when they may be feeling uncertain or reconsidering their commitment. Don’t miss this opportunity to show parents and students why the stability, adaptability, and community your institution can provide is the peace of mind that they can’t do without.

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