Catholic School Systems Harvest ‘Autumn of Hope’

Safe plan for reopening yields admissions uptick.

A student arrives for the the first day of school at St. Bartholomew Catholic Academy in Queens, New York, Sept. 21. Catholic schools in New York City and Boston, and elsewhere, have increased enrollment as many public schools delayed in-person learning.
A student arrives for the the first day of school at St. Bartholomew Catholic Academy in Queens, New York, Sept. 21. Catholic schools in New York City and Boston, and elsewhere, have increased enrollment as many public schools delayed in-person learning. (photo: Timothy A. Clary / AFP via Getty Images)

BOSTON — When Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker announced classrooms could reopen in the fall for in-person learning, school administrators in the Boston Archdiocese started talking about how, not whether, it could be done.

“Every single person wanted schools open,” Superintendent Thomas Carroll told the Register. 

While many public-school officials were still ascertaining if they would reopen, most Catholic schools in the archdiocese resumed in-person classes, compared with only 4% of public-school districts offering live instruction.

Reluctance on the part of public schools to reopen turned out to be a boon for the archdiocese, which had expected to see 12% of its schools close following the coronavirus shutdown. 

“By late June and early July, we were pretty glum about how the fall was looking,” Carroll said. Then, he continued, “The most extraordinary thing happened. The three big teachers’ unions in Massachusetts in a joint announcement said school needed to be delayed by three weeks and when it started it should be fully remote.” 

That was July 15, and when it hit the evening news, Carroll said, “It was like every parent in the Boston area just totally flipped out and said, ‘What do you mean no school?’ Phones at our schools started ringing off the hook.”

After anticipating an enrollment reduction of 5,700 or more students from the previous academic year, schools in the archdiocese were enrolling hundreds of new students for a total increase of 4,484 as of last week. It was the largest summer enrollment increase the archdiocese has ever seen.

As Carroll said on Twitter Sept. 17, “… our Spring of Despair — caused by an historic enrollment drop due to the pandemic — has turned into an Autumn of Hope.” 

New enrollments have continued, some schools have wait lists for certain grades, and schools that had been on the closure list remain open — for now, at least. “It completely changed the fortunes of Catholic schools in the archdiocese,” Carroll told the Register.

Boston’s story reflects what is happening elsewhere. Although the National Catholic Educational Association reports that 150 Catholic schools have closed since the coronavirus shutdowns, spokeswoman Margaret Kaplow said many jurisdictions are seeing enrollment increases and waiting lists, as 80% to 85% of Catholic schools have reopened for in-person instruction five days a week.

Among these are schools in the Archdiocese of New York, which, according to spokesman T.J. McCormack, has seen a significant uptick in inquiries from current public-school families, as well as a surge in web traffic across its online platforms. 

Others include Partnership Schools in Cleveland, where enrollment at St. Thomas Aquinas and Archbishop Lyke is up 36% from last year, averting a previously announced closing of St. Thomas. 

“Some parents have driven by, seen students walking into the buildings and called the enrollment manager to ask if spots were available,” said Jill Kafka, Partnership’s executive director. “We have so many new students in person we’re needing to hire extra staff to help.” 

Enrollment also has increased at several Partnership Schools in New York, with St. Charles in Central Harlem up 8% and St. Athanasius in Hunts Point up 1%. Immaculate Conception, another New York Partnership School, has seen an enrollment increase of about 20 students, as families unable to find in-person classes at public and charter schools have expressed interest in the Bronx school. 

Principal Alexandra Benjamin said the pre-K to 8 school opened Sept. 8, offering five days of in-person instruction a week along with an optional remote-learning program. Immaculate Conception currently has a wait list for second grade and one of its sixth-grade classes. Although there was some uncertainty about resuming classes at the beginning of the summer when the school lost some students, Benjamin said the turnaround came with the sharing of a plan for a safe reopening. She said she believes Catholic schools like hers were able to do what was needed to resume in-person classes because of their conviction that they are called by Christ to educate children. 

“We held fast to that all through the summer when we were planning for this to happen,” she said. “We know that the best way that kids learn is to do it in person. I think we’re so anchored in those beliefs and that’s what makes us different and really pushes us forward and helps us to be able to do what we do.”


Catholic School Advantages

Mary Pat Donoghue, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Education, said the willingness and desire of Catholic school leaders to provide at least some in-person instruction is significant. 

“The majority have found a way to do this. Some are doing a hybrid model, and some are almost completely in person,” Donoghue said. She is hearing of enrollment increases occurring because parents want their children to be in school and so many public schools are not offering in-person classes. 

Despite having fewer resources than public schools, Catholic schools have been able to take the lead in resuming live instruction, Donoghue said, because they operate under the principle of subsidiarity, which allows decisions to be made at the local and most immediate level rather than by a central authority. 

“The second thing is that Catholic educators realize that, ultimately, Catholic education is a formative and relational process,” Donoghue said. “It’s more than ticking off objectives in a binder and giving assessments. There must be some in-person element. I think that’s why Catholic schools have worked so hard for that to happen.” 

Donoghue said Catholic schools also benefit by having fairly stable communities in which people know and trust one another. For example, she said, St. Jerome Academy in Hyattsville, Maryland, assembled a group of medical and psychological experts and educators who worked together on how to reopen the school. “That’s one school, and that’s staffed by people who intimately know that school and community. You really don’t have that in a public-school system,” she said. “The tendency is to do one-for-all.” 


Parental Perspective

Mark Mathers has experienced how both Catholic and public schools have handled resumption of classes after the shutdowns. His son, Sean, is a junior at St. Mary’s High School in Lynn, Massachusetts, and his daughter, Sadie, is a second-grader in the Lynnfield, Massachusetts, public-school system. At St. Mary’s, his son attends in-person classes five days a week under an extensive “Care for All” reopening plan that has allowed for safe learning, despite the school’s location in an area designated as a coronavirus red zone. 

The school is the only one in Lynn providing full on-site learning in classrooms. The public schools in the community are offering remote learning. “They’re really doing something people thought couldn’t be done,” Mathers said.

His daughter, meanwhile, attends a hybrid program in which she spends three days at home doing remote instruction and two days at school for in-person classes. 

Mathers credits the St. Mary’s leadership and prayer with making the school’s five-day program work. 

“Our leaders are all people of faith, and they have been brilliant in thinking through the ‘Care for All’ program,” he said. “The other thing is that, as a community, we’re saying the Rosary every day to ask the Blessed Mother to intercede for us to help us through this, so we give her some credit, too. … I don’t know how anybody would have been expected to pull this off, but so far, so good.” 

Mathers said he also was impressed that his son’s school was able to go to remote learning immediately after the shutdown occurred in the spring, despite having very little in the way of financial resources. “It wasn’t perfect,” he said, “but this is a school that, if you look at the demographics, probably has as many challenges as any inner-city Catholic school.” St. Mary’s continues to provide remote learning for about 5% of students who have opted not to attend classes in person.


Nimble Response

Carroll said Catholic schools in the Boston Archdiocese were able to respond with similar speed to the need for remote learning. After announcing their shutdown on a Friday, he said, some schools were back remotely by Monday and the rest by Tuesday. Meanwhile, he said, other schools took two to three weeks to resume educating their students. 

“For the people who had kids in Catholic schools, they realized a sense of community that is the outgrowth of us believing every kid is created in the image and likeness of God. We were living that,” the superintendent said. “There’s no way we would have stranded our kids for three weeks, yet it was routine in a public-school setting. People really understood the Catholic advantage in that time period. Now, we’re the ones doing things in person and most public schools are remote.” He said in the city of Boston alone, of 54,000 students in public schools, only 1,300, most of them homeless or with disabilities, are learning in person. Yet the opposite is true in archdiocesan schools, which have most of their students attending classes in person. The exceptions are several schools that are conducting remote learning for all students because of their location in high-transmission areas for the coronavirus. 

Still, he said, it was decided early on that schools in the archdiocese would bolster their remote-learning technology should in-person classes again have to be suspended. Over the summer, schools invested in new equipment, additional bandwidth and training to allow teachers in every school to transmit live instruction from their classrooms. The improvements have made possible livestreaming of classes to students who have opted to continue learning remotely. 

Carroll sees the new enrollments in the archdiocese schools as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to expose people who have never been in a Catholic school before to its mission. “The question is: Can they witness it powerfully enough that they don’t walk away at the end of the year?” 

Because of the cost of tuition, he said, parents are being asked to make a financial sacrifice to send their children to Catholic schools. “We have to really demonstrate our worth over the next year for people to make that sacrifice. People who’ve been in a Catholic school understand it. Those who have not may think we’re just another school charging tuition.”