Catholic Schools Shine a Light Amid Pandemic Struggles

Parents are grateful for parochial schools, the closings of which number more than 200 during the course of COVID-19.

Students at St. Rita School in Webster, New York, make use of digital technology that connects in-person learners with their distance-learning peers.
Students at St. Rita School in Webster, New York, make use of digital technology that connects in-person learners with their distance-learning peers. (photo: Courtesy of St. Rita School)

WEBSTER, New York — What difference does a Catholic school make during the COVID-19 pandemic? 

“It’s a lifesaver,” Kerri Kiniorski, a parent to three children attending St. Rita School in Webster, New York, told the Register. In early 2020, when the newly arrived COVID-19 pandemic shut down in-person teaching in New York’s schools, Kiniorski tried managing having three kids at home, trying to keep them on track learning virtually, while they also struggled with not being able to see their friends or go anywhere. 

“There were a lot of tears,” Kiniorski said. “I had a countdown going” for St. Rita’s return to in-person classes, she added. “Being in front of the screen was not the same as being in the classroom.”

Since this past fall, her children have enjoyed the return to in-person learning five days a week, while their public-school counterparts continue to juggle a mix of in-person and virtual learning. 

Looking at Catholic education during Catholic Schools Week 2021, Catholic schools on the whole have experienced a year like no other — more than 200 closed their doors permanently by summer 2020 — but many have found a way to thrive thanks to generous support from Catholics and hard work by teachers, staff and administrators to keep Catholic education going. 

St. Rita Catholic School is one of the bright spots. The school’s administrators put in place a plan to safely resume in-person teaching for pre-K3 through fifth grade. They now have 165 students in socially-distanced classrooms and a waiting list. 

Many local families are looking for Catholic schools because the local public-school districts are not offering full in-person class instruction Monday through Friday, but a combination of in-person and virtual class formats that force parents to improvise work schedules to adapt.

“Our enrollment is increasing,” Mary Ellen Wagner, St. Rita’s principal, told the Register. 

The school has upgraded technology, providing students with laptop computers and streaming the in-person classroom to approximately a dozen virtual learners, students who have family members at higher risk of negative effects from COVID-19.

Having both in-person and virtual learning, however, is a bigger lift for teachers than it sounds. Teachers have to prepare and execute their lessons, with two groups of learners in mind for each class, navigating the challenges of instruction, classroom discipline and grading in both in-person and virtual settings. 

“We can do it, but it is more work,” Wagner said, explaining why the school would most likely switch to in-person-only instruction once the pandemic had passed. Still, she has been pleased at how they have risen to the challenge.

“Our teachers are amazing and accomplish just about whatever they set their minds to,” she said.

Bright Schooling Spots in a Brutal Year 

St. Rita’s success comes as Catholic schools have faced perhaps their worst year as a whole. Annie Smith, director of research and data management at the National Catholic Educational Association, told the Register that more than 200 Catholic schools closed this past summer. 

“That’s more than double than usual,” Smith said.

Enrollment overall had also dropped 6.5% in summer 2020, Smith added, explaining that the annual decreases are usually more likely 1%-2%.  

“Elementary schools are impacted more than high schools,” she said. “And it’s across the country. Only a few states saw increased enrollment.”

However, Smith said that Catholic schools thriving in this environment have benefited from teachers, staff and parents working closely together to carry out Catholic education safely in the pandemic. Smith said that Catholic schools on the whole have been able to reopen in-person education (with the exception of California, where schools remain closed) much more quickly than their public-school counterparts. 

“That’s been really great,” she said, adding that the flexibility of offering a virtual option “has been really helpful.”


Planning Is Key

Timothy Fletcher, vice principal at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic School in Carmel, Indiana, said the school has been blessed to have in-person instruction this school year “from Day One.” The school’s teachers, staff, parents and pastor worked closely together to make sure Our Lady of Mount Carmel reopened with full in-person instruction. The administration staff also worked with a team of experts, including local doctors, to make sure that their plan for instruction was safe and effective for all involved and in line with state and Centers for Disease Control guidelines. 

“It hasn’t been without its challenges, but our school year has gone very, very well overall,” Fletcher said.

The school staff modified carpools, socially distanced the cafeteria, limited access points, and adjusted class schedules and dismissals to make sure there was “the least amount of mixing up of the kids.”

Fletcher said the whole enterprise has required both a lot of effort “and a lot of prayer.”

But consistency in following the plan, Fletcher added, was key. 

“We haven’t had to make big adjustments,” he said, saying they have made small improvements each day. “I’d say by now, we’re very proficient in this.”

In Mandeville, Louisiana, Our Lady of the Lake Roman Catholic School has also found success in returning to in-person schooling after developing a comprehensive plan. The school has also made use of technology to both integrate virtual learners in its classrooms, but also to hold school assemblies. Instead of all the school’s students mixing together, one classroom leads the school assembly, which is then livestreamed into the other classrooms. 

Alice Snee, the school’s curriculum coordinator, told the Register that virtual technology has been key in helping move along education, in the event that either the class or the teacher needs to self-isolate due to potential exposure to COVID. 

If the class needs to self-isolate, students can continue their classes virtually, and if the teacher needs to self-isolate, the students can be seated in class while the teacher streams in the lesson from their home, with a substitute teacher helping to administer the materials. 

“We like to think the way we’ve set up the technology and the planning that the instruction is as excellent as always,” Snee said. 

Connie Hunley, who teaches kindergarten at Our Lady of the Lake, told the Register that the experience of teaching has been “very different,” especially having done it now from home and the classroom. “One way my teaching is affected by virtual learning is [lack of] the in-person instant gratification of watching a child succeed. Another is the teachable moments you have when you least expect it,” she said. “It’s those in-person moments that add a special spark to teaching.”

Still, she said even with the challenges of virtual teaching, it’s “always rewarding to see the children learn new skills and be successful.” 

“Anytime there is a challenge, I stop and tell myself how lucky we are to actually be at school in a classroom,” Hunley added. “It truly keeps me going every day.”


Forward in Faith

Mary Pat Donohue, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Catholic Education, told the Register that the COVID-19 pandemic has shown how essential Catholic schools are to “integral formation of the person.”

“Our kids need to be in spaces that have been defined this way, with a community of other learners, to reflect the tradition of the Christian community,” she said.

She said Catholics can help by advocating for state and federal educational money to help students.

William McGurn, a Catholic columnist, echoed this view in The Wall Street Journal, saying President Joe Biden, who benefited from Catholic schools that served working-class families, should endeavor to support them. 

“During the pandemic, America’s Catholic schools are providing a similar lifeline to hundreds of thousands of children who would otherwise be out of class and losing ground,” he said. McGurn noted many parents are turning to Catholic schools because too many public schools have left them in the lurch — and for working-class families, a school voucher can mean a world of difference for their children. 

“Don’t parents deserve the option of a school that will put their children first, just as Mr. Biden’s did?” McGurn said. 

In the meantime, Donohue said Catholics can also do what they can at the level of the local Church to make sure everything is done, such as streamlining administrative costs or looking at different models, to keep those schools going

“It requires a commitment on the part of the diocese and the part of parishioners,” she said, particularly in making sure the Church fulfills its preferential option for the poor, by supporting the rural and urban schools that are among the “hardest hit.”

At St. Rita in Webster, Kiniorski said she is grateful for in-person Catholic education, and she sees the positive impact it has had on her children during the pandemic. 

“I can’t say enough good things [about St. Rita],” she said. “They’ve really risen to the occasion, and it’s phenomenal.”

Editor’s Note: Some Register staff have family members associated with schools profiled in this piece.