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Remote learning challenges during repeated pandemic lockdowns has more Canadian parents considering private school for their children, forcing some to make difficult financial decisions, such as postponing mortgage payments and delaying retirement.

Toronto parent Susan Lee-Gallagher says online learning for her son, who is gifted, was “a horrible experience.” Most of the time there was no structure, she says, with his teacher giving out assignments and leaving students to it.

Meanwhile, parents in her neighbourhood with kids in private school said their kids were online quickly in small classes, which allowed closer interaction with the teacher, with a school-day structure that ensured they were not falling behind.

Her son moved to private school in September, at the start of Grade 7 “and as expensive as it is, looking back I think we made the right decision,” she says. He had been struggling in math during pandemic learning and was not getting any additional instruction. “He’s not only caught up, he’s actually ahead.”

They’re funding the $30,000-a-year tuition by altering vacation plans, delaying paying off their mortgage, and preparing to work longer before retirement, she says. They were also ready to tap into their registered retirement savings plans, if necessary.

They now plan to keep paying for private school throughout their son’s high school years. “It’s been such a great experience. I think we’re going to have to find the money to do this,” she says.

Making financial sacrifices to send your child to private school is not new and demand for private-school spaces has been steadily rising for years. The perceived advantages of private schools over the public system include smaller class sizes, more flexible learning and the ability for the school to be nimble. Dissatisfaction with learning amid the pandemic has sent more parents looking for other options.

Cardus, a Hamilton-based public-policy think tank, examined private schools in Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta in a 2019 report to find out who is attending and how parents are paying for it.

In Ontario, two-thirds of parents sending their child to private school made “major financial changes to afford the cost” including taking a part-time job or changing jobs, making budget sacrifices, relying on a bursary, taking out a loan or getting help from family, the Cardus survey found.

In Alberta, 88 per cent of parents made financial sacrifices and in B.C., more than half of parents made financial sacrifices to pay tuition. In Ontario, private schools do not get public funding while there are varying levels of government financial support for private schools in Alberta and B.C.

Some parents went as far as downsizing their home, renting out a room in their home, bringing in an exchange student, or expanding or starting a new business, says David Hunt, education program director at Cardus.

In addition, about 10 per cent of private-school students from the survey receive some kind of financial aid, he says.

Demand for a private-school education, which has been rising for years, jumped even further amid the pandemic, with about 80 per cent of independent schools seeing “an uptick in enrolment,” Mr. Hunt says.

The average tuition for private day school in Canada is $23,767, but it can range from $16,000 to about $34,000, with boarding-school tuition ranging from $54,000 to about $61,000, says the Canadian Accredited Independent Schools.

Patti MacDonald, executive director of CAIS, says families are making tough financial choices. “Maybe they’ve decided to hold on to that car for one more year or to forgo that vacation” or ask grandparents for financial support.

In addition, many schools offer financial aid in the form of grants. In the 2020-21 academic year, Canadian private-school students received a total of $94.6-million in financial aid, up 26 per cent from 2016-17, for an average of $11,686 per recipient, CAIS says.

As the COVID-19 pandemic started “schools were really committed to ensuring that all of the kids who were currently enrolled could also stay – even if their parents had been negatively impacted financially impacted by the pandemic,” Ms. MacDonald says.

Maggie Houston-White is the executive director of strategic enrolment management at Havergal College, an all-girls school in Toronto where day-school tuition is about $36,000. She says demand for enrolment is up, as well as applications for financial aid.

Amid the pandemic, enrolment applications rose to six for every available spot, up from three or four applications per one spot, she says.

Ms. Houston-White says parents should look into financial assistance if they can’t afford private school as institutions are raising money for their endowment funds. Havergal has about 10 per cent of attendees getting financial aid, with a goal to reach about 20 per cent.

Lisa Elle, a wealth strategist and financial author at Ellements Financial Group in Cochrane, Alta., says parents struggling to afford the jump to private could consider asking grandparents for financial help, especially if you know an inheritance is likely, as they may be willing to give those funds now so they can see the results.

Do not dip into RRSPs, Ms. Elle says, because you’ll get taxed on withdrawals. “You’re almost better getting a loan.” But parents who choose to go into debt to fund their child’s education will need a plan to pay it off.

“You can’t always sacrifice for your child,” she adds.

Anna Premyslova, an associate portfolio manager at CWB McLean & Partners in Calgary, says if you’re planning for your child’s education when they are young, you can allocate each five years of tuition to different “buckets” and choose conservative to more aggressive investments based on the shorter and longer time horizon. This way “we’re not losing little Johnny’s tuition for the next five years” if the markets go down, she explains.

Parents can also do the cost-benefit analysis of how much they are spending on extracurricular activities that might be included at private school such as music, language, dance or sports classes.

Ms. Premyslova says if you truly can’t afford private school, don’t fret as it’s no guarantee of future success. You can give your child extra help via tutors and other assistance, she adds.

“If you are sacrificing to the point where you’re picking between a financially stable household for your child to come home to and that private school, I think the benefit of the first is going to be potentially a whole lot greater than the benefit of the second.”

Are you a young Canadian with money on your mind? To set yourself up for success and steer clear of costly mistakes, listen to our award-winning Stress Test podcast.

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