‘A herculean effort’: What Catholic schools learned amid the pandemic

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Students are seen at St. Paul Catholic School in Memphis, Tenn., May 13, 2021. The school offered in-person learning all year long and only had one case of COVID-19. (CNS photo/Karen Pulfer Focht)

The best compliment that Patrick Boyden has received from parents and teachers is that this school year has felt pretty close to normal.

“The kids have been talking about the normal school things: how much homework they have, the drama with their friends. It’s nice that our students, our families and teachers are able to have conversations about normal school life,” said Boyden, the principal of St. Peter School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Of course, the last nine or 10 months have been anything but “normal” for students and teachers at St. Peter School. Every week, they have been tested for COVID-19. The school year has also featured mandatory face masks, social distancing, staggered recesses and occasional two-week quarantines for entire grade levels whenever a student tested positive for the coronavirus.

“We learned that remote learning is very doable and can be very successful, especially when it’s just these two-week spurts as needed,” Boyden told Our Sunday Visitor.

The pandemic’s impact on Catholic schools has been well-documented, with the National Catholic Educational Association reporting earlier this year that enrollment across the board in the 2020-21 academic year is down 6.4%. COVID’s financial pressures are also expected to push hundreds of Catholic schools that were already struggling pre-pandemic to close their doors in the coming years.

But as the 2020-21 academic year winds down, Catholic school administrators say they have reasons to be proud. In interviews with Our Sunday Visitor, they looked back over the past 15 months at the various challenges, logistical hurdles and related expenses the novel coronavirus pandemic presented to their school communities. The next academic year carries the promise of normality as vaccinations rise and COVID-19 cases drop, but the past year’s experience has taught educators to be prepared for anything.

“I personally believe we’re going to see things change by the week,” said Todd Sweda, the senior director of the Office of Catholic Education and Formation for the Archdiocese of St. Louis. Sweda said how close Catholic schools return to normal depends in large part on the longterm effectiveness of the vaccine regimes.

“I think everyone is anxious to at least move the needle to a more normalized environment,” said Sweda, who told Our Sunday Visitor that among the toughest challenges have been the different public health guidelines in 11 jurisdictions that the archdiocesan schools are located in. 

“One model did not fit everybody,” Sweda said.

In the Archdiocese of Denver, the substitute teacher pool was considerably smaller this year to the point that there were days when Catholic school principals had to leave their offices and step into a classroom.

“We even had principals going in, literally measuring out 6 feet, inch by inch, between desks in those classrooms,” said Carol Nesbitt, the director of schools marketing and communications for the Archdiocese of Denver. 

Nesbitt told Our Sunday Visitor that principals had to frequently emphasize the importance of not sending children to school if they were sick or displaying symptoms of COVID-19. But some families, facing difficult choices between work and not having available childcare, sent their kids to school, at times causing entire grades to go out when a child tested positive for the coronavirus.

“I think our teachers did a herculean effort to overcome what they overcame,” Nesbitt said.

In the Diocese of San Bernardino, California, which opened the year with remote learning, some under-resourced schools early on had difficulty equipping students with computers and working with students from disadvantaged backgrounds who didn’t have reliable Internet connectivity at home. 

“It certainly has been challenging at times. It’s been a walk in faith for everyone, including the students, the faculty, principals and especially the parents,” said Samuel Torres, the superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of San Bernardino. 

With some exceptions, most Catholic schools across the country were open almost the entire year for in-person learning. That happened only because of nonstop planning that began right around the time that public and private schools everywhere shut down last March when the pandemic swept through the United States.

“This school year really tested our creativity to respond to evolving challenges, to new challenges, to remain flexible, to remain nimble, and all of that can be taxing on us individually and taxing on us as a community,” said Giovanni Virgiglio, Jr., the superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Albany, New York.

“But at the same time, it strengthens us, and I think it has affirmed for us what we value most and what we’re willing to do to ensure what we value remains a priority,” said Virgiglio, who told Our Sunday Visitor that he did not find the technical details — like figuring out how best to handle remote learning — to be the most challenging aspects of this year.

“To me, the greatest challenge has been the impact this has had on the sense of community in our schools,” he said. “Our schools are an extension of the family. In many ways, that bond was tested through social distance, through having to do those community events differently. That sense of community, I think, is what we missed the most.”

Mary Goslin, the associate superintendent of government programs for the Archdiocese of Boston’s Catholic schools office, told Our Sunday Visitor that operating in person this school year was a “truly remarkable” experience.

“Our nurses rallied around the mammoth responsibility of maintaining health measures and protocols, and our amazing staff welcomed their students into the school while adhering to all COVID policies,” Goslin said. “Offering in-person education allowed students to feel normal during a very abnormal time, and it provided parents with the ability to work. The Catholic school teachers are true champions.”

Federal pandemic assistance — in the form of CARES Act funding — enabled countless Catholic schools across the country to not only retain teachers and staff, but to also hire school nurses and custodial staff, as well as purchase air purifiers, personal protective equipment, extra cleaning supplies, desk shields and Chromebooks while equipping classrooms with livestream technology so students could learn from home when needed.

“Catholic schools are grateful for the CARES Act funding that provided much needed supplies such as cleaning, PPE and technology,” Goslin said. 

More recently, Catholic schools have started applying for and receiving funding from the federal Emergency Assistance for Non-Public Schools program, which is intended to help those schools with expenses related to reopening, continuing instruction and addressing learning loss related to the pandemic.

In Denver, the archdiocesan development office and its schools scholarship organization, Seeds of Hope, together raised $670,000 last year that officials used to buy 600 laptops and to pay tuition for families who had lost their jobs so that they would not have to unenroll their children in the local Catholic schools.

“We had 660 new students who came from the public schools because their parents wanted their kids to be in-person,” Nesbitt said. “On the downside, we still did lose some families who had lost jobs because of COVID and didn’t feel like they could swing the tuition anymore.”

At St. Peter School in Cambridge, Boyden, the principal, said enrollment at his school increased by 50 students this year. As for what the next school year holds, Boyden is taking a wait-and-see approach.

“It’s too early to tell,” he said.

Brian Fraga is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.

Brian Fraga

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.