As Omicron Surges, Catholic Schools Meet the Challenge

Across the nation, they are continuing to implement the successful policies that have earned them praise throughout the pandemic.

A student sits behind a barrier and works on a tablet at St. Anthony Catholic High School during the COVID-19 pandemic on March 24, 2021, in Long Beach, California. As the pandemic continues, Catholic schools are demonstrating best practices for in-person learning, complete with tried-and-true safety measures.
A student sits behind a barrier and works on a tablet at St. Anthony Catholic High School during the COVID-19 pandemic on March 24, 2021, in Long Beach, California. As the pandemic continues, Catholic schools are demonstrating best practices for in-person learning, complete with tried-and-true safety measures. (photo: PATRICK T. FALLON / AFP via Getty Images)

As public-school teachers in places like Chicago and New York balked at returning to the classroom amid the Omicron variant surge, Catholic schools quietly continued to do what earned them high praise — and often, enrollment increases — earlier in the pandemic.

From Los Angeles and Tucson, Arizona, to New York, Boston and Brooklyn, most Catholic schools are keeping their classrooms and buildings open, apart from some short-term temporary closures due to staffing shortages attributable to the new COVID-19 variant. 

For example, in the Los Angeles Archdiocese, which has the largest Catholic-school system in the country, Superintendent Paul Escala said his last survey of 220 schools indicated more than 70% were in full in-person mode, with the remainder in modified-learning modality until staff members who must quarantine due to exposure or sickness can return to campus. 

Escala explained that, especially with elementary schools, which lack large complements of additional teaching staff, having more than a few teachers out can be disruptive. 

“Schools are used to having one or two people who are sick and can hold down the fort for a few days,” he said, “but when it’s on a scale like this, they don’t have those options anymore and don’t have enough bodies to put into the classrooms and run a safe school day.” 

Still, Escala said, “I think that our schools once again are showing resilience in the face of challenges. Resilience, persistence, grit: You witness it all. And I think it’s just the difference between having a job and having a vocation. Our leaders, our teachers as a whole see their work differently than their [public-school] peers do. Because of that, they are able to bear witness to the incredible power of the Gospel.”

New York Catholic Schools Superintendent Michael Deegan concurred. “What distinguishes Catholic schoolteachers in the Archdiocese of New York from many public-school teachers is that Catholic teachers put the needs of their children before their own needs. That is a historic qualification of Catholic educators.”

In her daily conversations with superintendents, principals and teachers, the National Catholic Educational Association’s Jill Annable said she is hearing what sounds like a repeat of the 2020-21 school year, when Catholic schools stood out for their commitment to maximize in-person learning while responding to the guidance of local health departments. 

Annable said, “We’ve learned so much in Catholic schools in recent years about how quickly we can innovate and do things differently so we can meet the needs of families, and we’re seeing another wave of that.”

 

Showcasing Catholic Schools

In many ways, it is the perfect time to showcase the work of the nation’s 6,000 Catholic schools, as has been done annually since 1974, during Catholic Schools Week, which is set for Jan. 30-Feb. 5. Typically, the week includes Masses, open houses and other activities. Some systems are continuing with their plans while others are still evaluating them or modifying them by holding virtual events. 

“This is the big week for people to come in and take tours, so we’re still planning a best-case scenario, though we may have to switch,” Brooklyn Catholic Schools spokesman John Quaglione said. 

Brooklyn was still anticipating having in-person visits by Bishop Robert Brennan and is urging everyone to tell the story of Catholic schools. 

“It’s a particularly compelling message, with all that is going on,” said Quaglione. “We care deeply about people’s kids, are committed to keeping schools open, and have a strong record in academics.” 

Likewise, Tucson Catholic schools in Arizona were still hoping to hold in-person open houses instead of the virtual ones that were held last year. “Regardless, our schools will celebrate creatively,” Superintendent Sheri Dahl said.

Because most activities in the Los Angeles schools are localized due to the geographic spread of the archdiocese, Escala said the Catholic Schools Week response has been varied, with some schools rescheduling events for spring. 

Spokesman T.J. McCormack said New York schools will likely see a scaled-back version of the observance, with everything done on a smaller, safer scale, using social media to take up the slack if in-person events must be altered. 

Even so, McCormack said, “We’re taking this as an opportunity to let people know we’re here and open safely. We’re still at the forefront of the national conversation on how to run a school system in a time of pandemic.”

 

Enrollment Upticks

Annable, NCEA senior vice president for programs, said, during the last school year, between 86% and 90% of Catholic schools were open for safe, in-person learning five days a week. 

When parents looking for in-person opportunities for their children saw this, many Catholic schools experienced upticks in enrollment. Among them was Los Angeles. As of October 2021, Catholic schools in the archdiocese had recorded a system-wide increase of 2.6%, which Escala said is fairly significant, considering they serve 68,000 students in grades pre-K to 12. 

Likewise, Boston Catholic schools gained 4,400 students after local teacher unions announced in July 2020, that public schools would not reopen. This year, Boston added another 1,300 students. 

“We had been down almost every year for the last 60 years,” Superintendent Thomas Carroll said. “This is an incredible run of enrollment. I think it’s because people know we’re committed to kids, committed to keeping schools open, and they also know we’re committed to keeping everyone safe.”

Meanwhile, after a 27-year decline in enrollment, Deegan said New York Catholic schools have seen an increase in the current school year of 2,500 students, thanks to transfers from public schools. 

And, for the first time in 10 years, schools in the Brooklyn Diocese have had an enrollment increase of 2.4%, which represents the addition of more than 1,000 students in grades nursery to eighth. “COVID has put us on the map,” Quaglione said. “Our schools continue to show true leadership. We opened in September 2020, and we never closed as an entire school building or system.” 

 

Omicron-Surge Challenge

That has carried over into the latest challenge of the Omicron surge, as Catholic educators remain determined not to return to full remote learning after witnessing the impact it had on students during the 2020 lockdowns.

Dahl said four of her schools in the Tucson Diocese had to close before the Martin Luther King weekend because too many teachers were out with COVID. 

“We don’t have a bench of subs ready to fill in. We’ve exhausted even that.” With the shortened quarantine, she was hopeful the closures would be short-lived and that classes could resume after the holiday. 

Additionally, though, she has principals who are teaching and three principals out sick. One principal tested positive for COVID and is caring for elderly parents who have the virus but is running her school remotely. Dahl said despite the challenges Omicron has presented, everyone is determined to keep students learning in person, which they all know works better. 

“Part of it is the relational piece and the study skills you gain when you’re in person and the social skills students develop working with each other,” Dahl said. “All those things are such a challenge when you see everybody on the screen. Students can’t check out if they’re in person like they can when they’re having a Zoom class.” 

Through this latest challenge, Dahl said she has observed a strength in her staff that she is not even sure they knew they had. 

“That is what gets me up and going to work every day,” she said, “knowing I have this group of educators who are doing everything possible to keep these kids in school because they have seen the effects of kids not being in school.”

 

Keeping Schools Open

Even in the midst of the surge and the challenges of maintaining staffing, all 175 New York Catholic schools have stayed open. 

Deegan said a dozen or so classes had to go remote because of teacher shortages, but he credits the following of protocols that were put in place more than a year ago. These include parents monitoring their children’s health by following a checklist established by the state department of health, masking and temperature checks for students and staff entering school buildings. No visitors currently are being allowed. 

In addition, New York Catholic schools have a COVID response team made up of nurses, clinicians, health managers and administrators. Anytime a principal has a COVID-related question, he or she can call someone on the team 24/7 and get answers. The team also guides principals through the necessary steps to be taken if students or teachers report positive tests. 

“Although there has been a surge in positive cases in our communities and certainly New York, the number of transmissions in Catholic schools is as small as it was a year ago,” Deegan said. “The reason is because we have been faithful to all the policies we followed a year ago. … I can count on maybe two hands the number of traceable positive cases that have spread in the school building during the school day; and in almost every case, it was because an individual wasn’t faithful to the protocols established.”

Deegan is so confident in the schools’ practices for maintaining the health of its students and staff that he wrote to President Joe Biden shortly after his inauguration and offered them as a prototype. 

“I basically said if you’re looking for a model on how school systems should be run,” he said, “look to the Catholic school systems around the country, particularly New York, because we are the model of how schools are able to stay open and serve their communities, particularly in communities of black and brown families.” 

He did not receive a response. 

Still, Deegan said the word is out that Catholic schools know how it’s done. “There’s a recognition that we know what we’re doing and do it well.”

Boston Catholic schools also are having success in keeping schools open by following the same protocols that were established last year. Although Carroll said there has been an explosion of cases since students returned from the Christmas holidays, most of those originated in the community and are not being spread within the schools. Boston did have a few high schools in which one-fourth of the students and a similar percentage of teachers were out at the same time, which Carroll said is unusual. 

The schools continue to follow the Massachusetts governor’s guidelines, which include a mask order that has been extended to Feb. 28. “Right now, the price for staying open is wearing masks a little longer, at least until Omicron calms down.” 

 

‘A Different Approach’

In Los Angeles, where schools follow the public-health orders in their respective jurisdictions, Escala has had to advocate for Catholic-school students to make sure they receive the same resources as their public-school peers, whether it is test kits or masks. 

“We’re not at the top of the list, and we’re not the first to be called, but when we actively participate and partner with public-health departments and county offices of education, we are successful in securing those resources,” he said. 

At the time of his interview with the Register, Escala was working on securing rapid tests from Ventura County and had been successful in obtaining more than 200,000 N-95 masks from the Los Angeles County Office of Education. 

As everyone continues to deal with the latest surge, Escala said that even though educators are tired and want the pandemic to be over, “When they have suffered through the challenges together and seen what remote learning has done to children academically and psychologically, it’s difficult to turn away and say we’re going to go back to that. It’s a different approach because we have a calling, and the tendency in our ministry is to run into the fire, not away from it. That is emblematic of our teachers, principals and staff who are doing that every day.”

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