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Maine Private Schools getting fewer foreign students

Lincoln Academy is almost ready for classes, and for what will surely be a very different kind of school year.

NEWCASTLE, Maine — Classrooms at Lincoln Academy will have fewer desks and chairs, for instance, as a way to force social distance. Some students will take classes at home, at least part of the time.

But some students will not be returning to classes at all.

Lincoln Academy is one of 18 Maine private schools and Town Academies that have been welcoming international students for a number of years. The students bring diversity, the schools say, and they also bring money. Families pay tens of thousands of dollars for tuition, room and board, and for some schools that’s become an important source of revenue.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused some foreign families to decide to keep their children home, while school leaders say other students can’t get the needed visas or other permissions to travel from their own countries to the U.S.

Eliza Alexander of the Independent Association of Private Schools for Northern New England says many of the schools typically have between 20 and 100 foreign students in a normal year but are seeing a drop in their international enrollment.

“Those numbers for this coming year in-person instruction has been reduced by a fifth I would say,” said Alexander.

At Lincoln Academy, Jeff Burroughs said the drop is larger—down from about 40 students last year to just over 20 expected this year.

And about half those students are already in the dormitory, coming weeks before school starts to have time to quarantine.

“So most of them are here and we have some still arriving,” Burroughs said. “And like other boarding schools, there are some caught because they can’t get here because of restrictions on travel.”

The loss of that many international students has a financial cost to the school.

“It's always been a program that’s self-sufficient. We still will break even but won’t add anything to the bottom line.”

Burroughs and Alexander both say those revenue losses come at a difficult time, when the schools are also incurring the tremendous added expense to deal with changes forced by the COVID pandemic, from PPE and caring for students early to more frequent sanitizing and transportation changes, among others.

Burroughs says for his school to added costs are likely reaching the “six-figure” level. Alexander says for some of the other schools it will be in the high six figures, with schools having to find money wherever they can.

“They've really had to dip into their reserves and again… the one thing our schools are expert at is being creative with their finances.”

She also says schools are hoping some additional students will come later in the year if the situation with the virus improves.

Jeff Burroughs says he’s confident international families still want to send their kids to Maine schools, and that enrollment will recover over time.

One current bright spot? He says enrollment of local Maine students has actually grown, and that this year’s student body will be more than 500, meaning the school will essentially be full.