Many preschool and childcare providers have been forced to temporarily close due to COVID-19. The majority of centers that remain open are operating significantly below capacity, as some families opt to keep their children at home due to safety concerns. This has created significant challenges for providers who rely on tuition to cover ongoing expenses such as payroll and rent, and must wrestle with how to set tuition while children are at home.
We’ve pulled together this guide to share perspectives from industry experts, providers and families on how to think through your tuition options and thoughtfully communicate your approach to families.
There's no "right way" to manage tuition, but providers have several options
Many providers have expressed difficulty in deciding how to approach tuition during the COVID-19 crisis. It’s important to emphasize that there is no “right” approach. However, from speaking with our community of providers, there are four common models we’ve seen being used:
- Charge full tuition - no change to standard tuition amount.
- Charge partial tuition or a hold fee - charge a portion of the standard tuition amount while continuing to deliver value to families, such as providing distance learning options or allowing families to reserve their child’s spot. With brightwheel billing, you can easily add discounts to recurring or one-time charges as a percentage or a dollar amount. One provider who is remaining open offered this option to parents who are keeping their children at home. They said parents were “extremely supportive and appreciative that we’re giving them the option to hold their spot.”
- Charge partial tuition or a hold fee, plus opt-in contributions - charge a portion of the standard amount and provide families the option to contribute an additional amount if desired. As one California-based parent shared, “Our center is charging us a partial fee to cover rent and some payroll. We are planning to pay extra since it helps our teachers get paid. They take such great care of our kids.”
- No tuition - waive future tuition payments or potentially reimburse pre-paid payments.
The right approach for your center will depend on these factors
In choosing a tuition model for your center, there are a number of factors to consider, including:
- The ongoing support you’re providing to families. Investing in continued support, even when students are at home, will help your families and keep your staff engaged, while also helping you maintain revenue (additional detail below).
- [If you’re temporarily closed] The expected duration of your closure. Maintaining full tuition is easier for both providers and families to get behind if you are closed for a shorter period of time.
- The communities you serve. Some families have the financial means to continue paying full or partial tuition, whereas for others, this would be a significant financial burden. Talk to your families to understand which options are feasible for them.
- Your center’s financial position. Many centers are reliant on tuition to continue covering payroll and fixed expenses during periods of closure or under-enrollment. Other centers may have broader access to resources, and are able to sustain their center without support from families. Regardless of your situation, you should consider additional financial support opportunities available through the CARES Act.
- The length of your waitlist. If your center is in high demand and your existing families have already patiently waited to enroll in your center, they may be willing to pay a small fee to ensure they keep their spot for when they return.
Centers who continue to charge tuition should also consider collecting on a weekly basis (if not already offered). Families who may be struggling financially may benefit from avoiding larger sum payments. In addition to the considerations above, remember to check the terms of your enrollment contracts to understand the legal obligations and rights of your program and families, and confirm coverage of students on subsidy. In most states, any students on subsidy will continue to be supported.
Certified Child Care Coach, Brian Duprey advises centers to think of ways to help reduce the burden on families during this difficult time, while also ensuring that you maintain as much financial stability as possible. Doing so will allow you to continue serving your community through and after this challenging period.
Regardless of your tuition approach, stay focused on providing value to your families
Regardless of the tuition approach you choose, it is important to continue looking for ways to provide value to families while their children are at home.
Many providers are getting creative in continuing to support families at a distance, such as:
- Providing age-appropriate activities families can easily do with their children at home. For example, on brightwheel, many providers have started sharing daily or weekly lesson plans directly with families through the brightwheel app.
- Delivering remote learning sessions for families individually or in groups. For example, one brightwheel provider is hosting daily 30-minute virtual circle times each morning. Providers can also have teachers record activities, such as book readings or class songs, for families to do on their own time.
- Connecting families with teachers for 1:1 or group coaching and moral support.
- Simply taking time to share messages of encouragement with families who may be feeling stretched managing their new schedules with children at home.
Communicate tuition decisions proactively, transparently, and empathetically
We’ve spoken to many families whose child care situations have changed due to COVID-19. We asked them what they appreciated most about their providers’ communications around tuition. Below are some of the themes we uncovered:
Be proactive in your outreach to parents. It can feel difficult to commit to important decisions under the uncertainty we are currently facing. However, many parents expressed appreciation for providers who kept them in the loop on changes to their center regarding tuition, as well as broader updates (e.g., tips on how to stay safe, changes to hours, new government policies that impact their center). If you are waiting on more information before making a decision on tuition, be transparent with families about this. As one parent explained, “our center was receiving mixed messaging from different health/government agencies on whether we should stay open or closed. They shared the competing communications with us directly, and were willing to talk with parents who had questions. I really appreciated their transparency.”
Lead with transparency about the situation and your approach. If you decide to continue charging families some form of tuition, consider the following in crafting your communications:
- Start with acknowledging that this is a challenging situation for all involved. Closures have created significant hardship for families, children, teachers, and the community. In addition to the impact on your center, many parents are struggling to adjust to a new normal of working and parenting from home simultaneously.
- Share the rationale behind your approach. Reinforce that your goal is to be in a position to re-open after this crisis so you can continue supporting their family and others in the future, and maintaining revenue is a critical enabler of this. One provider shared: “[In our communications with parents], we emphasized we need to cover fixed costs, including employee pay, in order to keep afloat. We acknowledged that this is hard [on parents], but I think it helps for them to also understand our perspective.”
- Be transparent about how tuition will be used. For example, explain if tuition will help pay rent or maintain staff on payroll. One parent, whose center is continuing to fully charge tuition, shared, “I really appreciate that they were direct and honest about why they are charging and where the money is going. It's tough to pay for a service you aren't receiving, but I appreciate knowing that it helps them continue to pay their staff."
- Provide context on your financial situation. Consider making families aware of other adjustments you’ve made to reduce your expenses. Many will appreciate knowing that you’re using multiple approaches to sustain your financial health, versus placing the responsibility solely on families.
- Continue expressing gratitude to your families. We are collectively experiencing the impact of COVID-19. Thank families who continue to provide support, both in the form of tuition or words of encouragement to you and your staff. One provider we spoke with is remaining open, but has seen enrollment drop by 80% and is charging a hold fee for families who withdrew their children. She shared, “We make sure to tell parents that we really appreciate the support they are giving to our school. We also emphasize that we support their decisions to keep their kids at home if that’s what they feel most comfortable with.”
- Reiterate your commitment to supporting families. Highlight ways that your center is providing support for children at home and emphasize teachers’ continued investment despite being temporarily closed. Also consider inviting parents to share additional ideas for how your center can best support them through this time.
Take your families’ individual situations into account. Be thoughtful in your overall approach, but be willing to address tuition on a family by family basis. Just as every center’s situation is unique, so is every family’s. If you are able, reach out to families individually to understand their specific situations, or if you are a larger center, consider sending a survey to get insight into unique circumstances. One provider even worked with parents on a case-by-case basis to determine what families could afford during this time. In particular, consider families whose jobs have been impacted by COVID-19 or those who are essential workers and may have to pay for alternative arrangements if your center is closed. Demonstrating flexibility and compassion now will only strengthen your relationship once their children return to your center.
Deciding whether to charge tuition or make changes to your current model is a difficult topic. We are here to support you through this time and hope this resource provides some clarity and guidance as you’re deciding what’s best for your center. We are in this together as an early childhood learning community, and our top priority is supporting your needs. If you have any feedback or ideas on what else we should cover, please let us know by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brightwheel is the complete solution for early education providers, enabling you to streamline your center’s operations and build a stand-out reputation. Brightwheel connects the most critical aspects of running your center—including sign in and out, parent communications, tuition billing, and licensing and compliance—in one easy-to-use tool, along with providing best-in-class customer support and coaching. Brightwheel is trusted by thousands of early education centers and millions of parents. Learn more at www.mybrightwheel.com.