COVID’s Effect on Catholic Schools: As Some Close, Others Innovate

Creative initiatives are key to emerging from the pandemic to educate students well.

Catholic school girls enter their school's chapel.
Catholic school girls enter their school's chapel. (photo: Shutterstock)

When the coronavirus closed classrooms across the country, Immaculate Conception School in the Bronx not only made sure students would continue learning from home but reached out to their families with wellness checks and support for those suffering losses.

Such a response, replicated around the nation, is what often makes Catholic schools anchors in their communities. As Immaculate Conception Principal Alexandra Benjamin told a recent Manhattan Institute forum on “Education after COVID,” “These schools need to be in their communities serving. Once they leave, they won’t be back.”

Benjamin’s school, which serves students in the country’s poorest congressional district, will reopen in the fall, but more than 100 other Catholic schools will not. Unable to withstand the effects of the prolonged coronavirus shutdown on already-fragile resources, they are closing their doors permanently, causing some to question whether America’s Catholic school system will survive.

In the Archdiocese of Boston, 10% of Catholic schools will not reopen in the fall, and that number could grow, according to Superintendent Tom Carroll, who has predicted the country will see the largest number of Catholic school closures in recent memory.

Meanwhile, in New Jersey, 14 schools are closing — nine in the Archdiocese of Newark and five in the Diocese of Camden. One school that had been slated for closing in the Newark Archdiocese, the Academy of Our Lady of Peace, will remain open at least for the 2020-21 school year thanks to funds from anonymous donors and community support. However, the New Jersey closures also include Cristo Rey Newark High School, which is part of a network known for an innovative work-study program that enables low-income students to apply what they earn in entry-level jobs to their tuition. That program is what has allowed Cristo Rey to depend less heavily on donor giving; and yet it, too, is being threatened by the coronavirus shutdown and the devastating unemployment it has wrought.

Cristo Rey President and CEO Elizabeth Goettl said at least half the schools in the Cristo Rey network, which has 37 in operation and two more in the launch phase, are at risk because of their reliance on the corporate work-study program for about 50% of operational revenue.

Other Catholic school closings around the country include four in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, three in the Archdiocese of St. Louis and the Institute of Notre Dame in East Baltimore, Maryland’s oldest Catholic college-prep school for girls.

Sister Dale McDonald, public policy director of the National Catholic Educational Association, told the Register that many more schools remain uncertain about fall reopenings. Because the shutdown occurred at a time when students typically reregister for the following year, many reenrollments did not take place, as parents who lost their jobs were unsure if they could afford the tuition. Additionally, some parents have been hesitant to reenroll children because of the uncertainty surrounding reopening restrictions and how those will affect school schedules. “Parents want to know what they’re getting in for and can they make that fit with their own schedules, particularly work and child care. They’re holding back in a lot of cases, so schools don’t know if they will have a viable enrollment to be able to open up. If you have a school with 180 students and 50-something registered for nine grades, you’re probably looking at closure.”

With tuition typically constituting 85% of operating revenue, most schools can’t continue operating if enrollments are severely reduced. Factor in income losses from spring fundraisers that were never held and parish offertory collections that weren’t taken up because churches were shuttered, and many schools are in precarious situations.

Still, well before the coronavirus struck, the future of private education, including Catholic schools, looked anything but bright. “Preserving a Critical National Asset: America’s Disadvantaged Students and the Crisis in Faith-based Urban Schools,” a 2008 White House Domestic Policy Council report, cited the closure of more than 1,500 Catholic schools between 1960 and 1970, leading then-President Richard Nixon to establish the President’s Panel on Nonpublic Education. Although the panel looked at challenges being faced by all private schools, it concluded in its final report that church-related schools were feeling the effects the most. If nothing were done, the report predicted “especially grievous consequences for poor and lower middle-class families in racially changing neighborhoods where the nearby nonpublic school is an indispensable stabilizing force.”

Nonetheless, the decline continued to the point that by the 2007-08 academic year, Catholic school enrollment was less than half what it had been in 1960. “What we’re talking about isn’t a new phenomenon,” the Manhattan Institute’s Andy Smarick said. “Reports 10 to 15 years ago were saying the same thing. The trend continues, and now we have this shock of COVID and an economic downturn.”

Smarick, who worked on the 2008 White House report, told a recent Manhattan Institute forum that many private schools have been barely hanging on financially, leaving them susceptible to some kind of shock. “The coronavirus could be that shock,” he told the Register. “We’ve already seen dozens of schools close since the pandemic hit. We can’t say for certain that those closures are entirely a function of the economic downturn and the coronavirus.” However, he added, given what has happened so far and what school leaders are saying, it appears it is going to have a major influence.

To survive the aftermath of the coronavirus shutdown, schools are tightening their budgets and looking to donors for stepped-up help, Sister Dale said. Smarick believes some kind of short-term federal support could be a help, as well, making the difference between a tough spell for private schools and a catastrophic one.

That relief may be on the way in the form of a U.S. Department of Education policy that is to insure private schools receive an equitable share of aid allocated for schools under the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act. CARES funds can be used for personal protective equipment, cleaning, remote-education training and distance-education tools.

Additionally, President Donald Trump has announced plans to seek a “onetime, emergency approporiation” in the next stimulus bill to fund scholarship programs that would help pay tuition for private and religious school students. His proposal would include designating 10% of what Congress approves for state and local educational agencies for private-school grants and $5 billion in federal tax credits for business and individual donations to the scholarship programs.

Although a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on a program in Montana said states can set up tax-credit programs like the one Trump is proposing even if their state constitutions prohibit aid for churches and religious schools, the policy on CARES funding for private schools could be challenged by opponents of public money being made available to private schools.

NCEA’s Sister Dale said her organization is trying to stay out of the politics involved in such funding decisions, but emphasized that every child, whether in a public, private or home school, has been affected by the coronavirus. “The focus should be on: How do we make these kids whole in terms of returning to a healthy and safe environment and one in which they can learn?”

If there is an upside to the crisis private schools are facing in the wake of the coronavirus shutdowns, it could be that it may inspire creative solutions and innovation, as happened after the dire reports about the future of private schools 10 to 15 years ago.

Smarick said as a result more states ended up passing voucher legislation that let parents use public funds to pay for a child’s private-school tuition and tax-credit programs for private tuition assistance.

Concerns about private schools also led to the development of new operating models such as Private School Management Organizations, networks of schools that pool resources and share administrative costs. Cristo Rey schools are part of such a network, as is Immaculate Conception School in the Bronx, which is a Partnership School.

“Private School Pioneers,” a 2015 report Smarick co-wrote for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, called Private School Management Organizations “among the most interesting and exciting innovations related to the supply of private-school seats — and potentially one of the most important recent developments in urban K-12 education.”

The advantages of such organizations were evident during the coronavirus crisis, as, for example, the seven Partnership schools were able to respond quickly and efficiently to the needs of students and their families. With all schools in the network sharing the same curriculum, Partnership Schools’ Jill Kafka said, “We could turn really quickly on a dime because our academic team within a week was able to adapt our curriculum to remote learning.” Kafka is executive director of Partnership, which, in addition to the seven schools it operates in the Archdiocese of New York, is about to open two more in the Diocese of Cleveland. She said schools in the network were able to waive tuition and provide financial assistance to families in need during the shutdown and were well-prepared for the crisis because they were able to build on the strength of relationships that had already been established with students’ families.

Despite seeing schools close around the country, Kafka said she remains optimistic  about the future of the Catholic school system. “What I’m hoping is that this crisis will help spark some innovation and that more dioceses will look at alternative ways to manage their Catholic schools. I’m hopeful that some of the possibilities in government funding will give Catholic schools a little more time to innovate and get creative and benefit from the strength that they’re showing. That means leadership on the Church level and creativity and outside-the-box thinking.”

Register correspondent Judy Roberts writes from Graytown, Ohio.