Catholic Schools Stayed Open During COVID — What’s Their Next Move?

Federal pandemic relief programs or state school-choice initiatives could give Catholic schools a boost, but that’s only part of the story.

Ms. Sharon Rozzi instructs 5th grade students at East Boston Central Catholic school amid the COVID pandemic within the Archdiocese of Boston.
Ms. Sharon Rozzi instructs 5th grade students at East Boston Central Catholic school amid the COVID pandemic within the Archdiocese of Boston. (photo: George Mattell / Archdiocese of Boston)

CLEVELAND — When Briana McMullins realized that her son was spending almost as much time in the principal’s office as in his second-grade classroom at his suburban public school, the African-American mother of two began the search for a better fit.

After several local private schools turned her son down, he landed a spot at St. Thomas Aquinas School, in Cleveland’s inner-city. The rough neighborhood worried McMullins, but the tuition was fully covered by the state-backed Cleveland Scholarship Program, and the family felt welcomed. 

A year later, her son is earning solid grades and loves sharing his newfound knowledge with his mom, who has also been impressed with the school’s commitment to in-person instruction over the past year. 

Without St. Thomas Aquinas School and the state scholarship program, which launched in 1996 and now serves more than 7,000 students annually, “people like me would be stuck and our children would miss out,” said McMullins, a pharmacy technician who lost her job during the pandemic and is now studying for a nursing license.

The Cleveland Scholarship Program has also improved St. Thomas Aquinas’ prospects, even as the pandemic accelerated the pace of U.S. Catholic school closures. And diocesan superintendents, principals, and pastors hope that a new crop of school-reform bills introduced in other state legislatures will benefit many more families and parochial schools. 

At the same time, Catholic educators believe that additional federal COVID relief is needed to shore up their schools until the economy rebounds. As a result, this period requires a laser-like focus on new opportunities that can benefit the Catholic system, as well as a prudent concern with how this help could impact school culture.

“For many reasons, we don’t want to be in a situation where the federal government becomes our lifeline,” Mary Pat Donoghue, executive director of the Secretariat of Catholic Education for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the Register. “We have to protect our mission oriented in religious liberty, and we need to demonstrate to the public why we need Catholic schools.”


Facing the Challenge

Tom Carroll, school superintendent for the Archdiocese of Boston, has faced this challenge head-on. 

“Money from a variety of sources has helped us get through this crisis,” Carroll told the Register, and he singled out the unexpected surge of 4,000 students fleeing the shuttered public school system last fall. 

That influx helped stabilize local Catholic schools that lost thousands of pupils after the lockdown hit parents’ pocketbooks, and Carroll hoped the schools’ performance would convince this new cohort to stay put.

“What we are seeing now is that the overwhelming number of these students are staying, and we are getting a second wave,” he reported. 

Carroll acknowledged that the shift led some educators to suggest that Catholic schools should downplay their religious identity and even drop school Masses to accommodate students with no previous exposure to Catholic education. The superintendent said he dismissed this guidance and Catholics schools have stuck with their established religious practices.

Meanwhile, as the economy gains momentum, many of these schools are banking on federal aid to get them through a tough transition.   

Last year, the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), designed to maintain employees’ salaries, “sustained churches and schools” in the wake of the lockdown, noted Carroll. And since then, Cardinals Sean O’Malley of Boston, Timothy Dolan of New York, Blasé Cupich of Chicago, and Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles have worked to secure help with other COVID-related costs through the federal Emergency Assistance for Non-Public Schools (EANS).

EANS I and EANS II each set aside $2.75 billion for private schools serving low-income students and will be handled through governors’ offices, but come with different restrictions. 

EANS I covers expenditures for structural modifications to increase social distancing, or technology upgrades for remote and hybrid instructional programs, among other issues. Schools that serve low-income students qualify for this program. 

EANS II offers help with the costs of addressing student learning losses during the shutdown. And, as Carroll noted with dismay, it comes with a means test that does not apply to public schools seeking similar assistance. 

Only private schools with a high number of low-income students will qualify for EANS II funds. And then, would-be recipients must decide whether they would benefit more from EANS II or another round of PPP, as they cannot tap both federal programs. 


New York Perspective

In New York, Dennis Poust, interim executive director of the state’s Catholic conference, expressed similar frustration with the hurdles that Catholic schools will face as they weigh their options.

Catholic schools that need help are looking for greater “flexibility” from the federal government, Poust told the Register, “and what we are hearing from the Department of Education to date is not easing our minds.” 

For example, “while our schools will be able to purchase cleaning supplies to help with disinfecting, we are not allowed to use federal funds to hire cleaning companies. And while we can use federal funds to attempt to retrofit windows that cannot be opened, we can’t purchase new windows to replace older ones that don’t open.”

Msgr. David Cassato, vicar of education for the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York, and the pastor of St. Athanasius Church and St. Dominic’s Church, has first-hand experiences with the mounting financial costs associated with Centers for Disease Control protocols. Last year, he spent $50,000 to maintain proper social distancing between students at St. Athanasius’ School, and he now spends $11,000 a month on a cleaning service as well. 

“Things are tough,” Msgr. Cassato told the Register, as he reflected on a school year like no other. “Tuition is very slow in collection, because a lot of people are negatively affected by COVID. And it is hard prying money [allotted by the federal government] out of the public sector for the parochial schools.”

But that hasn’t shaken his determined to add another 1,000 students to the 20,000 already enrolled in Brooklyn diocesan schools. He has stepped up outreach to donors and Hispanic and Haitian families who send their children to CCD class, but may be too intimidated by tuition costs to consider the parish school.

“At Holy Week and Easter Sunday, I spoke at the Spanish language Masses, which have more children, and invited them to come to the school,” he said. “At the other Masses, I asked for tuition assistance.”

“You have to work at fundraising, tuition collection, and enrollment. You can’t stop one week,” he said.

And when families new to private education express interest in the parish school, he explained, the school office must offer help with tuition-assistance forms and support for non-native English speakers.  


Multi-Pronged Strategy

Catholic schools in other parts of the country have adopted a similar multi-pronged strategy. And some are banking on help from school-choice initiatives that have been approved or are under review in 30 states.

“The pandemic has been a revelation for many Americans about union control of public schools that refuse to reopen,” noted a recent Wall Street Journaleditorial. “Nearly 50 school-choice bills have been introduced this year in 30 states. It’s a testament to how school shutdowns have made the advantage of education choice more evident, and its need more urgent.”

In Kentucky, where the GOP-controlled state Legislature recently overrode Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear's veto of a school-choice bill, Catholic schools will benefit from the political breakthrough.

The Kentucky law allows families to use a new tax-advantaged education savings program to cover tutoring, private school tuition or other related expenses. Meanwhile, local businesses can contribute to a $25 million scholarship fund that gives them state tax credits, while making private school aid available to students located in Kentucky’s largest counties.

Katie Jacobs, principal of Holy Trinity School in Bellevue, Kentucky, expects to see an increase in enrollment, once the historic law is fully implemented and she can begin helping families fill out applications for tuition assistance. 

At present, the pre-K-8 school educates 125 children, including an influx of students from the public system, and Jacobs aims to double the size of the student body.

The school already offers struggling families help with tuition, but Jacobs said she relies on a nimble marketing campaign for student recruitment. 

“We market in community newspapers, we publish in weekly bulletins in our three local parishes, and we use social media, which is the way a lot of families now want to communicate,” she told the Register.

Jacobs successfully employed this strategy when Holy Trinity opened a preschool this year. And though she could not host a traditional open house, Holy Trinity launched a social media campaign that left the new venture with a full class and a waiting list. 


Stewards of the Future Generations

Every diocese and school that seeks to offer the gifts of a Catholic education to the next generation of Americans must adopt a similarly robust effort to get the word out, said Shawn Peterson, executive director for Catholic Education Partners, a national nonprofit that  works on school choice issues at the state level. 

Catholic schools educate 38% of private school students, and 39% of all choice students. But that second number, said Peterson, could be much higher, particularly if parishes did a better job of sharing the value of a Catholic education with Hispanic families, many of whom “have no reference point for sending a child to private school.” 

Kathleen Porter-Magee, superintendent of Partnership Schools, which has successfully managed seven inner-city Catholic schools in New York City, and recently took on two Cleveland Catholic schools, including St. Thomas Aquinas, echoed Peterson’s analysis. 

During an interview with the Register, Porter-Magee also underscored the need to strengthen curriculum and teacher formation, while simplifying the admission process to make schools more welcoming for families unfamiliar with private education.  

She also noted that a drop in pre-K and kindergarten enrollment accounted for almost half of the recent decline in students attending Catholic schools, and that parish schools should be reaching out to the parents of these younger children to rebuild their student body for the fall.

“We have a unique moment right now,” she said. 

“Parents’ frustration with the public school system is at an all-time high because of the duration of the school shutdown and the inflexibility of some large public-school districts that have failed to serve students. 

“But there is a lot more we need to do to reach out to families in the most vulnerable communities,” she concluded. “They are frustrated with their school options, but they don’t realize how much agency or choice they have.”

Back in Cleveland, Briana McMullins expressed gratitude for the life-changing opportunity her son received when he enrolled in St. Thomas Aquinas School, and she has encouraged her friends to take a look at the school.

“Thank God,” she said, “for this chance.”