Attorney: Pandemic-induced business opportunities abound in alternative education

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Noel Sterett, a partner in religious land use and business law firm Dalton & Tomich, PLC, says with America on the verge of a pandemic-induced revolution in education, as public schools go online or remain mired in uncertainty as to the safety of in-person instruction, business opportunities abound for those willing to apply fresh thinking to a sector that has experienced minimal significant change in decades.

“With traditional education at a crossroads, parents across the country are re-evaluating how and where their children will receive an education,” Sterett said. “They are looking at all available alternatives and even creating their own, rather than waiting for the government to provide a solution. That could mean a golden business opportunity for those willing to take on an entrepreneurial challenge and help parents take advantage of their new education options.”

Sterett cites not only the increased demand for direct education providers and new private schools, but also the additional opportunities that will emerge in the areas of curriculum development, logistical support, childcare, tutors, and a myriad of products and services that can support parents in their effort to provide their children with the best education. This alternative educational infrastructure will continue to develop and evolve as the country adjusts to the ever-changing COVID-19 restrictions and contingencies.

“Demand will be met in several forms, from the proto-typical sectarian private school model to newly emerging alternatives, such as ‘pandemic pods,’ micro-schools, home school cooperatives, and other local forms of education,” Sterett said. “Each of these opportunities will also come with a variety of legal considerations, too.”

According to Sterett, the top legal considerations are:

• Private Teacher/Tutor Contracts. Many parents are looking to hire teachers and tutors for their children and are often willing to share the cost with other parents. As a result, some teachers are finding it financially and educationally advantageous to offer to teach a small group of students for a fee. In such cases, and for the benefit of all involved, the parties should have a written contract. For example, the parties can enter into an independent contractor agreement which defines the scope of services the teacher is expected to provide, the schedule of services, the manner of payment, any employment benefits, the teacher’s independent contractor status and tax treatment, the remedies available to either party in the event the contract is breached, and other liability issues.

• Incorporation. Individuals and organizations looking to provide alternative education services should look into the benefits of creating a corporate entity through which to provide the services. There are variety of corporate forms that can be tailored to help insulate individuals and organizations, whether for-profit or not-for-profit, from liability and help them accomplish their goals. It is important to know the costs and benefits of incorporating and the different corporate forms each state makes available.

• Land Use and Zoning Approvals. For organizations looking to start a new school or expand an existing one to welcome new students, zoning and land use regulations may pose a significant problem. That’s because new, private schools often struggle to find property or space to rent; even when they do find a suitable location, they often run into zoning and land use regulation barriers. Many zoning codes make it difficult to establish a new school in town or expand an existing school to accommodate increasing enrollment. Understanding how to navigate and overcome zoning regulations is critical. Religious schools in particular should also be aware of the substantial rights and protections they enjoy under a federal law called the Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and seek legal counsel if a municipality is making it difficult for a school to open or expand.

• COVID Liability. Any time people gather together, there is a risk of transmitting or contracting COVID-19. Many alternative education providers, be they private schools or home school co-ops, are using COVID liability release forms. But just because a form can be found online, does not mean that it is enforceable or is best tailored to any given situation. An experienced attorney can help draft a release form tailored to the specific situation and parties involved.


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