Teachers and administrators from Maine’s independent town academies will welcome back some 5,000 publicly tuitioned high school students to their in-person and virtual classrooms soon.
They also will welcome back international students from around the world, but the numbers — and the schools’ revenue — are expected to be much smaller this year due largely to the COVID-19 pandemic and related travel and visa issues.
“Believe it or not we’re still getting applications,” Foxcroft Academy head of school Arnold Shorey said. “It just comes down to whether the students can get here or not.
“It’s still kind of a wait-and-see because things change almost daily.”
Some international students remained in Maine or elsewhere in the United States during summer to ensure a return to their American high schools this fall. But others who went home after schools closed in March or prospective new international students have found it difficult to reach the United States because of travel restrictions and closed embassies in their home countries that cannot issue visas.
Some home-bound international students will take online classes from their Maine schools while waiting to return to the United States, but absence of those students from their campuses — and the room-and-board payments that come with it — represents a considerable financial loss to the host schools.
“We’re all facing the same conditions and results,” said Erin Mayo, head of school at Fryeburg Academy and a member of the Independent Schools Association of Northern New England board of directors.
“We’ve had from late spring and then across the summer to see what’s on the horizon, so we’ve been preparing budgetarily and otherwise for a pretty minimal number of students to be here at the start of the year.”
One school hit hard by the drop in international boarding students is Washington Academy in East Machias, whose residential population totaled 80 last year but may drop to 20 this September.
“I’m anticipating a drop of about $2 million in revenue from international students, but it really depends on if students get visas to get into the country and then will they follow our [testing and quarantining] protocols,” head of school Judson McBrine said.
McBrine did not have to cut programs to address the pending shortfall, but said that adjustments included some layoffs and not filling positions vacated by retirements and attrition.
“Having fewer students here is going to be financially difficult but safety-wise it will make things easier,” McBrine said. “And most of the [international] students who are returning are seniors and we really felt the commitment to make sure they could finish because they want to go on to American universities.”
With fewer boarding students on its campus, Lee Academy is changing how it will house its international students.
“One thing we’ve done is pivot away from the dorm experience for our international high school kids,” Lee Academy executive director Luke Shorty said. “Because the number is so small the economies of scale don’t work for a dormitory-type situation, so we’ve gone to a home-stay type of environment for that smaller population.”
Shorty expects Lee Academy’s international high school population to total 16 at the beginning of the school year, compared to more than 30 who attended during the 2019-2020 academic year.
“The majority of our international students who were here stayed in the United States over the summer so we are expecting them to come back,” he said. “But the group of new students coming in is much smaller because of visas — embassies haven’t been open overseas — so we planned accordingly.”
Other independent schools like Foxcroft Academy in Dover-Foxcroft, John Bapst in Bangor and Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield also are coping with smaller dormitory populations.
“Everybody’s going to have a decline,” MCI head of school Chris McDonald said. “We fortunately budgeted for it so it’s not going to hammer us, and it looks like we’re actually going to be where we budgeted, which was a percentage decline.”
McDonald said economic issues back at home amid the pandemic may prevent some international students from traveling to the United States for their education.
“We get a lot of middle-class families from across the world,” he said. “We’ve had a few families pull out because of shutdowns in their country and businesses drying up. One of our kids’ parents runs a tour business in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam, but they haven’t been able to run tours in a month so what she thought was going to be income for her son’s schooling has to be delayed for a year until that tourism comes back.”
McDonald expects 50 to 60 boarding students on campus when school starts compared to approximately 75 last year. Of those 75, some 40 stayed on campus through the end of the school year and a small number remained throughout the summer.
Foxcroft Academy similarly allowed international students who couldn’t get home after the pandemic arrived to remain on campus through the end of the school year, and that effort has had a residual effect.
“We’re rural, we’re in a safe community whether it’s social unrest or COVID-19 numbers, and people greatly appreciated how we dealt with our students when the pandemic first came out,” Shorey said. “We didn’t tell them they had to go home. We said, ‘Do you and your parents want you to stay here?’, and if you do we’ll protect you to the best of our ability.”
Foxcroft expects about 40 international students on campus this fall compared to 65 a year ago and will keep one of its two dormitories open.
John Bapst similarly kept its campus open for international students through the end of the school year, with nearly 20 students from China and Vietnam who couldn’t get home remaining on campus through the summer, head of school Mel MacKay said.
MacKay said another group of John Bapst international students stayed with relatives or family friends in the United States and are expected back, too, joined by incoming students from Japan and South Korea, two countries with low coronavirus rates.
“When we open Aug. 25-26 for the first two days of school we think we’ll have 25 or 26 of our international students on campus,” he said. “We’ll spread them out, and the kids who stayed here during summer can keep the same rooms.”
MacKay estimated that 40 to 45 international students will study remotely at the outset of the school year.
“I think a lot of us have been thinking that we may not see these students at all until second semester and they may be online that whole first semester,” MacKay said. “Depending on our progress [with the battle] against the disease and the conditions in their home countries, there’s maybe an outside chance that certain kids could come to the U.S. at a certain point in the fall. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
MacKay hopes the health of the international student programs at Maine’s town academies will outlast the pandemic due the value of an American high school and college education to many overseas families.
MacKay added that John Bapst — which hosted nearly 80 international students last year among its total enrollment of 535 — can cope with the financial implications of having a smaller in-person group from around the world for now.
“We can ride that out for a year. We’re a well-managed school,” he said. “We’re just hoping not to ride it out for three years, I don’t mind telling you.”