Private Schools Cashed in on P.P.P. Funding

This is the Coronavirus Schools Briefing, a guide to the seismic changes in U.S. education that are taking place during the pandemic. Sign up here to get this newsletter in your inbox.

This spring, when the federal government disbursed billions of dollars in emergency pandemic funding, the traditional K-12 public schools in Los Angeles got an average of about $716,000.

Meanwhile, Sierra Canyon School, a private school in the San Fernando Valley where LeBron James’s son is a basketball standout, got $3.14 million — part of a forgivable pandemic loan to its foundation from the federal Paycheck Protection Program.

New York’s public schools averaged $386,000 in federal aid. But Poly Prep Country Day School, a private school in Brooklyn with more than $114 million in the bank, got a $5.83 million P.P.P. loan. Public schools in Washington, D.C., averaged $189,000 in federal funding. But a P.P.P. loan for $5.22 million went to the Sidwell Friends School, the Washington alma mater of Sasha and Malia Obama.

This week, as the federal government releases a second round of P.P.P. loans, watchdog groups are following the money. From its start, the $659 billion program, intended to help struggling mom-and-pop businesses and nonprofits cover their payrolls with loans backed by the Small Business Administration, has been troubled by complaints that the rich and connected had crowded out intended recipients.

A database of recipients — released in full by the Treasury Department in December after The Times and other large news organization filed a federal lawsuit — has buttressed those concerns.

In education, the disparities were particularly striking. Public schools are not eligible for P.P.P. loans because they have a separate pot of aid under the federal CARES Act. But private and charter schools could apply for the loans. Many did, sometimes to their embarrassment when the applications became public.

The Latin School of Chicago, which disclosed a $58.5 million endowment in a recent tax filing, applied for a loan and then returned the money after a story by the school’s student newspaper, The Forum. So did the elite Brentwood School, in L.A., after The Los Angeles Times noted that its students include two of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s children.

Still, many elite private schools kept the money they had applied for, citing economic uncertainty and rules that constrained their ability to tap their endowments to cover their payrolls. After an initial round of P.P.P. funding was quickly exhausted, the Small Business Administration issued revised guidelines for the program that make clear that employers with other financing options shouldn’t apply. Rules have since been tightened even further.

But Accountable.US — a nonpartisan watchdog organization that gathered the aforementioned statistics on L.A., New York and Washington schools — says it still needs to address loopholes that hide equity issues, make the program vulnerable to potential fraudsters and continue to let the well-connected cash in loans. And minority-focused lenders are raising similar concerns. This fight is far from over.

After outbreaks last fall, the city-state of Singapore has averaged less than one locally transmitted case each day. Since the pandemic began, our colleague Sui-Lee Wee reports, its three major universities have reported zero cases of community transmission.

From our perch here in the United States, that almost sounds like a fantasy. But the three factors that contribute to its success — technology, restrictions and compliance — may be a useful reference point for educators and officials across the world.

The National University of Singapore has invested in extensive testing resources and sifts through sewage in dormitories for traces of the coronavirus. That’s in step with many American campuses.

But the university is also using technology to enforce social distancing measures, specifically by clearing out crowds in high-traffic areas. The university president regularly scans an online dashboard to see how crowded the cafeterias are. If the real-time map shows that a dining area is too packed, he has administrators send out an advisory to avoid it and use other options.

Singapore’s government has taken an aggressive pandemic response: It punishes those who have violated restrictions, in some cases by deporting foreign nationals and revoking work passes.

In universities, severe on-campus restrictions have led to the evictions of some students from dormitories for hosting visitors. More than 800 students signed a petition last October to lift the restrictions.

“The consequences are severe, so people are scared,” said Fok Theng Fong, a 24-year-old law student.

Most students in Singapore do not live on campus. And Singapore does not have fraternities and sororities.

Olyvia Lim, a senior at the Nanyang Technological University, said reports about American college students partying amid a pandemic baffled her friends.

“We all said, ‘Why would they risk themselves to do such a thing?’” Lim said. “It’s a bit hard to believe because we are of similar ages, but I think it’s culture. They are all about freedom, but when the government here says, ‘Wear a mask,’ we all do.”

  • After the University of Alabama won the college football championship Monday night, thousands partied in the streets to celebrate, in a potential super-spreader event.

  • Appalachian State University and the University of North Carolina-Charlotte joined a growing list of schools delaying the start of in-person learning. And a community college in California, Chaffey College, canceled in-person classes for the spring term.

  • Many colleges in Rhode Island plan to open soon, despite rising cases.

  • Art amid chaos: Three students at Dartmouth College shared their artistic creations with Emma Ginsberg, a reporter for the student paper. Jazz, baking and acting still thrive.

  • A good read: Our colleague Billy Witz took a hard look at the often absurd inequalities of college sports. “It is difficult to untangle the hypocrisy from the heartwarming in the mega-business of college sports, where the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the inherent conflicts wrought by a financial model that reaps billions on the backs of unpaid players.”

  • About 250 public schools in New York City are offering full-time, five-days-a-week instruction to all of their students, according to Mayor Bill de Blasio.

  • After delays, Utah started vaccinating teachers on Tuesday.

  • Arkansas will expand its vaccine distribution to teachers and workers in child care and higher education.

  • Boston plans to bring more public school students back for in-person learning starting in February. Last week, Gov. Charlie Baker unveiled plans to begin pool testing for students and staff across Massachusetts.

  • An opinion from Chicago: Stacy Moore, the executive director of Educators for Excellence-Chicago, did not mince words. “If the leaders of our school district and teachers’ union continue on this path, no one wins,” wrote Moore, a former teacher. “It is time for both sides to act like adults and come to the table to compromise.”

  • A worthy watch: A public school educator in Baltimore posted a powerful video with testimonials from students. “It’s so hard to stay engaged with your computer,” one student said. “It’s like a curse.” Alec MacGillis, a reporter at ProPublica, wrote on Twitter that it was “the first collection of first-hand student testimonials that I’ve seen from anywhere in the country.”

Our colleague Christina Caron wrote a handy explainer for everything you need to know about Covid tests for kids. She spoke with five doctors and two of the largest urgent care providers in the United States to parse questions: Are there less invasive tests? If so, where? Are they accurate? And how should parents prepare a squeamish young child for the swab?

There’s a ton of information in the piece. But in general, to calm nerves, Christina recommends going to a pediatrician. “Doctors and nurses who test children regularly will most likely know what to do if your child is nervous or scared,” she wrote.

Sign up here to get the briefing by email.