As the new academic year arrives, school systems across the United States are struggling to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. Roman Catholic educators have an extra challenge — trying to forestall a relentless wave of closures of their schools that has no end in sight.
Already this year, financial and enrollment problems aggravated by the pandemic have forced the permanent closure of more than 140 Catholic schools nationwide, according to officials who oversee Catholic education in the country.
Three of the nation’s highest-ranking Catholic leaders, in a recent joint appeal, said Catholic schools “are presently facing their greatest financial crisis” and warned that hundreds more closures are likely without federal support.
“Because of economic loss and uncertainty, many families are confronting the wrenching decision to pull their children out of Catholic schools,” said New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley and Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
They urged Congress to include funding in the next pandemic relief bill for scholarship assistance for economically disadvantaged families to use at Catholic or other private schools.
Many Catholic schools already have received substantial federal aid from the U.S. Department of Education and from the Paycheck Protection Program, which was designed to pay wages at businesses or nonprofits impacted by the pandemic.
The pace of closures has been relentless since March. Within the past month, Catholic leaders have announced the shuttering of five schools in Newark, N.J., and 26 in the New York City area. Among the schools closed earlier was the Institute of Notre Dame in Baltimore, a 173-year-old girl’s high school that’s the alma mater of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Several of the closures have promoted protests and petition campaigns by angry parents, and Catholic officials have been scrambling to help affected families.
The Diocese of Brooklyn’s school superintendent, Thomas Chadzutko, said the closures were unavoidable due to the pandemic’s “devastating effects” on enrollment and finances.
Parents were offered a $500 grant if their children enrolled in other Catholic schools, but many were bitter that the closures were announced with little time to make alternative school plans.
“It is a complete travesty how the Brooklyn Diocese can shut down schools within a pandemic and with less than two months’ notice,” parent Javier Cortes wrote in an online post about the closure of Queen of the Rosary Catholic Academy. “Treating children like this is NOT the Catholic thing to do!”
Also ordered closed was Nativity of Our Blessed Lady, an elementary school in the Bronx.
“I was part of the first graduating class and now I walked out of there hysterical in tears,” said Hope Wilson, who attended the school as a child and later taught there for 30 years. “It’s heartbreaking.”
At the National Catholic Educational Association, there’s acute concern about the closures’ consequences.
“Catholic schools have a very profound impact on young people of low-income backgrounds, students of color, kids from single-parent homes,” said the NCEA’s chief innovation officer, Kevin Baxter “That makes it all the more tragic if we lose the Catholic schools that serve those populations.”
One consequence of the turmoil: increased interest in Catholic-oriented homeschooling.
The Rev. Thomas Vassalotti, pastor of Queen of the Rosary Catholic Academy’s parish in New York, said numerous parents affected by that closure — and wary of switching to public schools — are expressing interest in homeschooling, perhaps in a cooperative with assistance from the parish.
For Catholic schools that are reopening, there is no national directive as to how they should handle the question of in-person classes. Decisions are being made diocese by diocese, often influenced by local and state rules.
Mary Pat Donoghue, who heads the education office of the national bishops’ conference, said she expects a wide variety of reopening plans, with a common aim of getting students back in the classroom as quickly as health conditions allow.