Catholic Parents Fight for Their Children’s School in COVID’s Shadow

While the New York Archdiocese closes 20 more schools, citing canceled fundraisers and suspended parish collections, parents in one Yonkers school lobby for a second chance.

St. Paul the Apostle School in Yonkers is on an updated list of 172 New York Archdiocesan schools slated for closure amid the pandemic, and school families and staff are fighting to keep it open.
St. Paul the Apostle School in Yonkers is on an updated list of 172 New York Archdiocesan schools slated for closure amid the pandemic, and school families and staff are fighting to keep it open. (photo: Janine Notoro photos)

YONKERS, New York — New York Catholics are no strangers to parochial school closings, an almost routine but still devastating occurrence along the Northeastern corridor.

But John Mitchell was galvanized into action when St. Paul the Apostle School in Yonkers appeared this month on an updated list of New York Archdiocesan schools slated for closure as the pandemic erased the razor-thin financial margin that kept many afloat.   

Mitchell’s wife was an alumna of the school, inspiring the couple to settle nearby and enroll their three children, while the parish church became their spiritual home.

Within days of learning that low enrollment at St. Paul’s was a key factor in the decision to shutter the school, he launched a petition campaign to secure a reprieve for the school that garnered more than 4,100 signatures, and he organized large rallies that that have sparked sympathetic media coverage.

While some parochial-school communities had been warned about “falling enrollment and poor finances,” St. Paul’s families received no prior notice, Mitchell told the Register.

“We want to form a partnership” with the archdiocese, he said. “Our goal is to boost enrollment and fundraising to help save this school.”

Hundreds of parents in this tight-knit school community have joined Mitchell’s crusade. Michael Balestra, a mail carrier with two children enrolled at St. Paul’s, told the Register that his entire family has taken part in the protests.

Balestra did not deny that enrollment had fallen, but predicted that it would have risen as the summer wore on.

“This is a working-class parish, and COVID put a strain on parents’ finances,” said Balestra, who noted that parents also feared that online classes would continue in the fall, leaving them with few options for childcare.

“It wasn’t that they weren’t going to send their kids to the school: They were waiting to see about the [next federal] stimulus and held off registering.”

St. Paul’s is not alone.

On July 9, Michael Deegan, superintendent of Schools for the New York Archdiocese, confirmed that 20 schools in multiple counties would be closed, and three would be merged. Among those schools are nine inner-city schools that have attracted a large number of scholarship recipients.

“I am sorry that families were put through this painful ordeal,” Deegan told the Register, but schools that were already struggling financially “will not be able to ‘fundraise’ their way out of this crisis.” He stressed that the pandemic has had a “catastrophic financial impact on the entire school system.”

Along with sharp decline in fundraising and parish collections, rising unemployment and job insecurity in low- and middle-income communities have resulted in “millions and millions of dollars in uncollected tuition,” he said.

The yawning deficit has sharply limited the archdiocese’s ability to keep troubled schools open. In the past, said Deegan, “I had enough cash reserves to float the school and see if it could hit its enrollment goal. [This year] I didn’t have a cash reserve. It evaporated.”

No doubt, the novel coronavirus has cut a swathe of destruction across Catholic education in the United States, where many parochial schools abruptly suspended classroom instruction in the spring and still are not sure when they will reopen.

The National Catholic Educational Association reported that 98 Catholic schools closed or were consolidated last year, noted Mary Pat Donoghue, executive director of the Secretariat of Catholic Education at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“Our current estimate is that 130 to 140 are closing this year.”

The schools at greatest risk are those that educate the children of “lower-middle-class Catholic families,” she said They are less likely to attract philanthropy or maintain an endowment, and many are located in New York, New Jersey and Boston, precisely “where the impact of the pandemic has been particularly damaging.”

Even in the best of times, parochial-school finances pose a tough challenge for dioceses.

What’s different about this moment, she said, is that the pandemic has disrupted almost every source of revenue that keeps such schools afloat.

“We did a little informal survey of 700 Catholic school principals, and 10% said the crisis may affect their ability to reopen,” she added.

“Half of those we surveyed reported that at least a quarter of their families would require new assistance to remain in school.”

Faced with an unprecedented crisis, Catholic schools are looking to the federal government for help.

Thus far, the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) has made it possible for parochial schools to cover their payroll, and they are holding out hope that additional assistance will come through a new coronavirus-relief bill, the Heroes Act, still under review in Congress.

A total of $13 billion in assistance to U.S. educational institutions was also provided through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act. Many state and local governments contend that those dollars should be restricted to public schools. The Trump administration, however, has issued rules that explicitly require a proportional allotment of the funds to be shared with private schools.

An equitable distribution of this money will “help ensure the full educational ecosystem, public and private alike, is able to withstand the shock of the pandemic,” Frederick Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C., research center, told the Register.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos “has worked aggressively to help private schools make it through this period,” he said. “But the most effective and appropriate response is for congressional supporters of private schools to ensure that any aid package takes care to protect these invaluable community institutions from a cataclysmic threat.”

Back in New York, where beloved parochial schools, and even St. Patrick’s Cathedral, face growing budget shortfalls, Cardinal Dolan has defended the flow of federal relief to Catholic institutions and has repudiated the campaign to exclude religious schools from receiving financial aid.  

Likewise, the archdiocese’s school superintendent said he would continue his effort to secure funds provided by the CARES Act that have been denied to archdiocesan schools. At the same time, he will keep up the pressure on Congress to include language in the Heroes Act that explicitly designates religious schools as recipients.           

“We are optimistic about the Heroes Act and have been working with Washington and our elected officials locally, statewide and nationally to ensure that Catholic schools get their fair share,” said Deegan.

The next round of federal aid may come too late for St. Paul’s families, and Deegan acknowledged the pain and shock that inspired their protests and petition drive. But he also highlighted the archdiocese’s efforts to shore up its remaining schools and to assist with new school placements.

“We know that you are hurt and upset by the closing,” he said, as he sought to speak directly to frustrated parents. “But Catholic schools continue, and there are many that have their doors and hearts open to welcome every child displaced by closures into a new school, into another community of faith.”

The question remains as to whether John Mitchell, Michael Balestra and other St. Paul’s parents accept Deegan’s invitation. 

Some St. Paul’s parents have already registered their children at another parochial school, fearing that they would lose the opportunity if they waited any longer.

But Mitchell wants to believe that St. Paul’s can still be saved and the school community can persevere.

The pastor, Father Leonard Villa, who has met with grieving parents, understands their sense of loss.

“In my heart of hearts, I think St. Paul is a viable school,” Father Villa told the Register, recalling his own surprise when he learned about the closure, following earlier assurances that St. Paul’s would survive another round of closures.

“The principal ran a very tight ship. Our subsidy was on the low side, compared with many schools.”

St. Paul’s is a small school with a rich array of parish and school activities, like the annual living Rosary and the reenactment of the Passion by the seventh- and eighth-graders on Good Friday.

A total of 162 students were enrolled when the pandemic forced the school to begin online classes in March. Re-registrations stood at 133 students, with 27 pending, said the pastor.

After news of the school’s closure sparked local headlines, he has heard from alumni and parents. Many of them are construction workers, police and firefighters, and they are deeply worried about their children’s future as they struggle to navigate the economic and health crises roiling their world.

Recently, he joined a group of school parents at the church, where they had gathered “to pray and ask for God’s help.” Father Villa prayed with them, but could offer little practical assistance. St. Paul’s is a “regional” school that means it is managed by the archdiocese, not the parish. The parish collection covers some expenses, including building repairs, but the superintendent’s office handles finances, and officials there were alarmed by the need for an increased school subsidy.

“I feel for the families,” he said. “The closing is a wound, and there is a lot of hurt.”

Joan Larkin, a St. Paul’s teacher for 30 years who also sent her children to the school, echoed the deep sense of loss, as teachers, parents and children struggle to find closure.  

Larkin has joined the protests and wants to continue the fight for the school’s survival. Her effort is inspired, at least in part, by the sense that her students were already harmed by the unexpected shift from in-person to online classes and now face another wrenching disruption.

“On March 13, they were told we were closing for a week, and then they spent the rest of the year in front of the computer,” she said, as she reflected back on what was expected be a temporary closure of her school.

But her students never returned to the classroom. And now they may need to find another school just when they most need a familiar place to get their bearings.

“Other teachers have asked me what I am going to do,” said Larkin, her voice raw with emotion.

“But the issue is not me losing my job. The issue is the kids losing their second home.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.