Congressional COVID-19 Relief Bill Brings Urgent Aid for Catholic Schools in New York

A U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops official describes inclusion of aid for non-public schools as a ‘very important’ win for the nation’s Catholic schools.

Children arrive for the first day of school at the St. Bartholomew Catholic Academy in the Queens section of New York on September 21, 2020.
Children arrive for the first day of school at the St. Bartholomew Catholic Academy in the Queens section of New York on September 21, 2020. (photo: Timothy A. Clary / AFP/Getty)

WASHINGTON — Private Catholic schools will be eligible for federal pandemic aid through the COVID-19 relief bill approved by Congress yesterday, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops confirmed today.

Congress has approved $82 billion for public and private K-12 schools, and the vast majority of those federal dollars will go to a $54.3 billion fund for public schools, while $22.7 billion would go to public and private higher education. 

“Within the Governors’ Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEER), which is part of the Education Stabilization Fund, $2.7 billion dollars is reserved for non-public schools, said Jennifer Daniels, associate director for public policy that impacts Catholic schools at the USCCB’s Secretariat on Catholic Education.

In an interview with the Register, Daniels described the news as a “very important win for our schools.” 

“In the previous CARES Act, relief went through a different process,” and Catholic schools had to apply for assistance through local public school districts. 

Now Catholic schools seeking reimbursement for COVID-related costs are expected to benefit from a “streamlined” process with a “set aside” for non-public institutions.

The change is critical, she said, because Catholic schools have spent as much as $1,000 per pupil as they pivoted to online instruction last spring and then implemented CDC protocols to make classroom safe for students and teachers this fall.

The last time around, many local parochial school systems encountered roadblocks and received no aid when they applied for funds designed to cover costs associated adapting to online learning platforms, among other expenses. 

This time, Catholic schools “won’t have to work with local school districts, we’ll work with the governors,” said Daniels, and that will provide one process, as opposed to different rules set by various local agencies. 

This new approach, she said, “ensures that our schools will have the funding or the services available because they are reserved specifically for our schools.”

Catholic schools that have incurred massive costs as they updated ventilation systems or reconfigure classrooms to improve social distancing will finally get some relief.


Some Sticking Points

But even as Daniels celebrated the breakthrough, she acknowledged that the new provisions “are narrow and tied to needs that are directly related to the coronavirus.” 

“One thing we were disappointed with is that struggling parents are left out, and cannot receive aid to help with tuition during this period,” she said.

Another sticking point is that Catholic schools in desperate straits during this time will have to choose whether to apply to the GEER program or seek help with operational costs, like payroll, through the PPP program.

The PPP program has kept many parochial schools afloat after the pandemic hammered their bottom line. The NCEA estimates that 200 schools across the country have closed or merged since the onset of the pandemic in February. 

“Schools that choose to participate in the GEER program are not eligible to apply for another round of PPP,” Daniels warned. 

“The PPP is really for operational costs, like salaries and mortgages. The GEER fund is an educational program that targets the implications of COVID on academics. 

“These are two completely separate funds, and Catholic schools will have to look at where they most need help.”

Still, she is pleased that U.S. parochial schools, 80% of which opened this fall for on-site classes, now have a straightforward process for securing reimbursement for expenses as they continue to serve students and families. 


Dioceses Assessing Outcome

The breakthrough was announced just three days before Christmas, and U.S. dioceses are still grappling with what it will mean for their schools.

“In a staff meeting today, with Michael Deegan, the archdiocese superintendent of schools, there was optimism [about the fact] that the funds would be going through the governor,” Joseph Zwilling, the spokesman for the New York Archdiocese, told the Register. 

Since the pandemic, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, one of many U.S. city leaders facing a yawning budget shortfall for their educational systems, has challenged the Trump administration’s efforts to direct public school districts to equitably share federal COVID aid with private schools. Meanwhile, many Democratic lawmakers in the U.S. Congress also had resisted the inclusion of Catholic schools in new federal spending for COVID relief, while the U.S. bishops have pressed for a reprieve, and have called for tuition assistance needy families. 

Zwilling, for his part, noted that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, “has been supportive of non-governmental schools in the past,” and given that fact “we are hopeful about how the new process will work in the State of New York.” 

“It should not matter where your child goes to school,” said Zwilling. “This relief is meant to assist students and that is what is important.”

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COMMENTARY: ‘We all want progress,’ writes C.S. Lewis, ‘but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.’