Catholic educators work to ease blow of pandemic-induced school closings

The exterior of the Institute of Notre Dame in Baltimore is shown in this undated photo. The Catholic school, which began educating girls in 1847 with alumni that include House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, closed its doors for good at the end of the 2019-2020 school year. (CNS photo/Catholic Review)

By Dennis Sadowski 
Catholic News Service

CLEVELAND (CNS) — The announcement that two historic Catholic schools in the Diocese of Worcester, Massachusetts, were closing for good as the academic year ended sent a wave of loss and sadness across the diocese.

St. Mary’s Schools, founded in 1915, and St. Stephen School, dating to 1924, closed largely because of the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus.

Parents, many faced with unemployment or the possibility their kids would have to continue learning at home in the fall, just couldn’t commit to reenrolling their students to save the schools, said David Perda, diocesan superintendent of schools.

“These were schools that were experiencing challenges before COVID started,” Perda told Catholic News Service. “So you add the uncertainty COVID brings and implications for enrollment and (the need to provide) personal protective equipment and it proved to be insurmountable for those schools.”

The closings leave the diocese with 20 schools. Perda said more closings are not expected. For those that remain, finances will be as tight as ever.

The story of the end of the line for schools such as St. Mary’s and St. Stephen is being repeated in dioceses across the country.

Officials at the National Catholic Educational Association and the Secretariat of Catholic Education at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops project that 100 to 150 schools won’t reopen this fall. At the higher end, the number would represent the largest number of closings in recent years, said Margaret Kaplow, public relations manager at NCEA.

While NCEA has collected data from various sources on 97 closings as of June 15, education officials expect the number to grow.

In comparison, 98 schools closed before the start of the 2019-2020 school year; 93 in 2019, 110 in 2018, 86 in 2016 and 88 in 2015.

To have 97 schools already announcing they have closed sets a gloomy tone for the 2020-2021 academic year, said Presentation Sister Dale McDonald, the association’s director of public policy.

She explained that school registration for an upcoming academic year usually occurs in the spring. This year, that did not happen because they were not operating under a normal schedule. Parents also have delayed registering their children, waiting to see if they can afford tuition and to better understand “what they’re coming back to,” she said.

What they may be coming back to could be far different than a normal classroom setting in many dioceses. For that reason, educators said, parents hold the key to the future of Catholic education, which is undergoing a rapid makeover in how students learn.

Perda and his colleagues across the country realize that families are facing tight finances themselves as many parents are unemployed or have been furloughed from work. Other families are cautious, realizing the provisions of the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which allowed small businesses to keep employees on the job for an additional eight weeks, are about to begin winding down.

“We don’t lack people who want to attend our schools,” Thomas Carroll, superintendent of schools in the Archdiocese of Boston, told CNS. “We lack people who can afford to attend our schools.”

Another factor plays into the equation as well, the school leaders said. They are hearing from parents who are unsure of paying full school tuition if their children again are going to be learning from home as they did during the latter part of the recently ended academic year.

Without enrollment commitments, school leaders are working to balance their commitment to providing a quality, values-based education with the adequate revenues needed to run their schools.

They also are having to add new costs for school cleaning and sanitization, social-distancing requirements and providing face masks to kids when necessary. They faced added pressure from cuts in parish and diocesan subsidies as Sunday collections dwindled without regular weekly Mass attendance and the loss of significant income from traditional spring season fundraisers that were either reduced in scale or even canceled.

All those factors contribute to making the financial margins under which schools operate all the more precarious, Carroll said.

Realizing the large budget gaps cannot be closed, struggling schools are closing throughout the country in a retrenchment of Catholic education rarely ever seen.

In Boston, pastors and educators at 13 schools — 11 of the archdiocese and two operated by religious orders — have announced closures, Carroll said. That’s about one in eight schools in the archdiocese.

Elsewhere, the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey, announced that 10 schools are closing; the Diocese of Pittsburgh, three; the Diocese of Camden, New Jersey, five; and the Diocese of Sacramento, California, two. The pandemic was cited at least in part for the closures.

In Pittsburgh, three schools have closed and two others merged because of the pandemic, said Michelle Peduto, diocesan director of Catholic schools. The schools involved already had seen declining enrollments and the pandemic hastened the decision to close, she explained.

Peduto recognized that “families may not be comfortable making the decisions (to enroll) until later in the summer.”

School officials are just as uncertain as parents on whether schools will open as scheduled in the fall, distance learning will continue, or a hybrid program will be adopted under which students report to class on designated days and learn from home on other days.

“They (families) don’t know what they’re paying for. They don’t know what they’re getting in the fall because we don’t know what our schools are going to look like in August,” Peduto said.

She said the solution does not rest in raising tuition because doing so would price many families out of Catholic education. “We want to be affordable,” she said.

In Sacramento, Lincoln Snyder, executive director of the diocesan Catholic school department, told CNS the 42 schools in the diocese plan to open to full classroom education in August under plans approved by local public health officials.

Two other schools — an elementary school and a high school — in the 21-county diocese of northeastern California will not. Both had been struggling to maintain enrollment in recent years, Snyder said.

“The pandemic seems to have accelerated some trends for schools that were having long-term challenges in sustainability in any way,” Snyder said.

Despite the closings, a few other schools are seeing increased enrollment for the fall, Snyder added.

“We’re reminding parents it’s a long way till August,” he said. “It’s three months since we went to distance learning and it’s two months until the school year starts. We know it’s going to be a dynamic environment through the next school year until we have a vaccine.”

Carroll said the struggle that Catholic schools are enduring can be eased through federal government action. He called for financial support for parents so they can continue to afford paying tuition while the economy continues to falter.

“The government is doing aid to all kinds of people for all kinds of reasons. And one that needs help is Catholic schools,” he told CNS.

“The government (enforced shutdowns) caused this problem. It didn’t happen on its own. The government must step up to help with a solution,” he added.

Along those lines, the NCEA and USCCB have been advocating within the Department of Education to ensure that provisions for school aid in the $2.2 trillion CARES Act are carried out.

In addition, Catholic education advocates are urging the U.S. Senate to include a provision in any future emergency aid legislation that would provide direct assistance to families for tuition expenses or tax incentives that can be used for nonpublic school tuition.

Such aid was left out of the $3 trillion tax cut and spending Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act, or HEROES Act, passed by the House of Representatives in May. The bill also rescinds funding of equitable services to nonpublic schools, including Catholic schools, that had been established in the CARES Act.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, the Senate majority leader, has said the bill would not be taken up in that chamber. Republicans are undecided on whether to adopt another aid package, choosing for the time being to see how the economy recovers as shutdown orders are reversed.

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