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Area schools weather the coronavirus with federal payroll protection funds

Dozens of private and charter schools received the relief amid concerns they might lose students during the pandemic.

A fairly young school, Carrollwood Day School knew it could have financial struggles as the coronavirus hit Florida, tanking its economy and driving students to learning from home.

“When the call came in that we had to go to distance learning, our biggest concern was to make sure our teachers got paid,” said Nicki Ragan, the school’s marketing director.

Its leadership turned to the federal Paycheck Protection Program as quickly as possible, and secured one of three $2 million to $5 million awards that went to Tampa Bay area schools. The others were the Plato Academy charter school system and Shorecrest Preparatory School.

“Thankfully, we got it,” Ragan said. “We are using it to pay our teachers.”

The school reported protecting 277 jobs altogether.

A review of the federal database of PPP loans shows that more than six dozen private and charter schools in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties received support ranging anywhere from $150,000 up to $5 million. The federal government does not provide the specific amounts, instead categorizing the loans in ranges.

In all, the schools said they saved more than 5,500 jobs.

Eight of them fell into the second-highest grouping of $1 million to $2 million. They were among the more notable of the area’s private institutions, including Admiral Farragut Academy, Academy at the Lakes, Cambridge Christian, the Diocese of St. Petersburg schools, Corbett Prep Independent Day School, Jesuit High School, Tampa Catholic and Tampa Preparatory School.

Shorecrest, which has seen its enrollment dip 9 percent from projections, viewed the federal funds as a life line to continue business “as usual as much as possible,” marketing director Rachel Barrett said.

The school lost all its auxiliary income, from things such as after-school and summer programs, after the campus shut down. The loan allowed it to maintain the full faculty and staff, Barrett said, noting that the school has not replaced employees who retired or resigned.

The loan “was just in the best financial interest of the long-term health of the school,” she said.

Across the state and nation, concerns have arisen that private schools might falter as families lose their income and no longer can afford the tuition. Their leaders pressed for federal support, arguing among other things that large numbers of children pouring into the strapped public schools would only further burden those systems.

Related: From Education Week: Want to Help Public Schools? Give Private Schools COVID-19 Relief, Groups Declare

At the same time, though, some of the nation’s wealthier private schools received criticism for taking PPP loans, with some returning the money under pressure.

The U.S. Department of Education has now instructed public schools that receive CARES Act funding — a separate pot of money for education relief — to share with private schools. Florida has agreed to do so, with Gov. Ron DeSantis also setting aside a portion of his discretionary coronavirus education support budget to bolster the state’s private school voucher program.

Eighteen charter school organizations in the Tampa Bay area received loans at the level below $1 million, including Learning Gate Academy, Athenian Academy, Pinellas Preparatory and Gulf Coast Academy of Science and Technology.

They also are eligible to receive money from Florida’s $173 million CARES grant for public education. The state identified charter schools as public and funds them as such with tax revenue.

In other states, critics have suggested that charter schools should not receive PPP loans because this other source of money is available to them. Charter advocates have argued that they are underfunded compared to traditional public schools, and as such should have access to the relief.

Related: From the Washington Post: Did some charter schools double-dip in federal coronavirus relief funding?

The Times Holding Company, which encompasses the Tampa Bay Times and related publications, received $8.5 million from the PPP program.

Also benefiting are two organizations that help local schools with scholarships and other activities. The education foundations of Pinellas County and Hillsborough County each received between $150,000 and $350,000, which they indicated would protect about 50 jobs combined.

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