Things were looking bright for All Saints Catholic School in Wilmington, Delaware. Even as enrollment in Catholic schools was dropping nationwide, its student population had grown 6% this year. Its finances were looking up too: Fundraising increased 368% in the past four years.
Then the unexpected happened: a pandemic hit.
The school’s finances were suddenly in shambles. The foundations it relied on for financial support refocused their spending on serving families’ immediate needs, like hunger. The school’s meticulous plan for growth and sustainability unraveled.
In late April, All Saints announced that it wouldn’t be able to reopen next year, forcing its approximately 200 students to find other schools.
COVID-19 has thrown pre-K, K-12, and higher education into a state of financial disarray. The pandemic has been particularly catastrophic for private Catholic schools: At least 100 across the country are expected not to reopen in the fall, according to the National Catholic Education Association.
“There simply isn’t money,” Kathy Mears, interim president and CEO of the group, told HuffPost.
The reasons for the devastation are threefold: Families who have lost jobs are unenrolling, for fear that they won’t be able to afford tuition; schools have had to cancel spring fundraisers that help keep the institutions afloat; and without in-person services, churches’ offertory collections — which typically provide a major source of education funding — have taken a hit.
Foundations that help Catholic schools are also shifting their spending priorities amid widespread unemployment and financial devastation.
Like so much of the impact of COVID-19, the effects of these school closures will be stratified by class.
At All Saints, tuition only covered 52% of the school’s expenses this year, while tuition covers about 80% of a typical Catholic school’s expenses, according to Louis P. DeAngelo, the Wilmington Diocese superintendent of schools. About 50% of students receive financial assistance at All Saints, where the student body has a substantial immigrant population. Tuition is $6,400 a year for first through eighth graders, and $6,100 for students in kindergarten and preschool.
“The Catholic schools that serve wealthier clientele will probably be fine, but the ones that serve the working class and the poor, it will be difficult,” said Mears. “If this trend continues, I worry there won’t be Catholic school options, especially for the middle class and poor.”
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has worked to give private schools a bigger share of coronavirus relief funding, but public school groups say her action violates the intent of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act and directly takes funding away from low-income students in public schools. While private schools around the country say they’re struggling, public schools ― which serve 90% of the nation’s children ― also anticipate having to lay off hundreds of thousands of teachers.
The Catholic school closures announced so far are taking place all over the country, from St. Louis to Houston to Red Bluff, California. The Diocese of Camden, New Jersey, has announced that five of its schools will not be reopening. The oldest all-girls Catholic school in Maryland, which boasts notable alumnae like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, also announced that it would be closing its doors.
In a call with Catholic leaders last month, President Donald Trump promised to help these schools, calling himself the “best [president] in the history of the Catholic Church,” according to the Catholic news website Crux.
But so far, Mears estimated that the closures will impact at least 50,000 students.
“I know we’re important to the country,” said Mears, noting that a majority of sitting Supreme Court justices attended Catholic or Jesuit schools as children, as did Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “We hope some schools will reopen, but history tells us most will not.”
Enrollment in Catholic schools has been on a steep decline for decades. In 1965, there were around 13,000 Catholic schools around the country, Mears said. Now the number sits just over 6,000.
The closure of All Saints is symptomatic of larger issues. The Wilmington Diocese had already announced the closure of two other schools before the pandemic hit. All Saints itself opened after three schools in the area had to merge. In recent years, the school seemed to have turned a corner, steadily getting enrollment rates on an upward trajectory.
When the school building closed on March 13 and teachers and families shifted to remote learning, they had no expectation they would never be able to return. Mary Elizabeth Muir, the school’s principal, said she expected only a two-week break.
But it became apparent as the state stay-out-home order turned into weeks and the weeks turned into months that the school was no longer sustainable. The boards and leaders that oversee the school came to a painful conclusion.
“We weren’t able to create a budget for next year, not one that was viable,” said Muir.
Having to explain the situation to teachers and families over video chat, rather than in person, felt like salt in an already painful wound. Many parents in the school community had lost their jobs and were facing personal and financial upheaval. This only caused more tumult.
“We couldn’t be together. We haven’t been together. So I think it’s very raw,” said Muir over the phone, choking back tears. “We’re never going to do school again together. We’re never going to be together in the way that we were called to be together.”
Jessica Dzielak is being impacted by the closure of All Saints in two ways: She’s been a preschool teacher there for two years, and her daughter is also one of the preschool’s students.
She told HuffPost that she was in a “fog” after she learned of the closure on a Zoom call. Her children could sense her unhappiness, and would discuss how mommy had to find a new job.
“The staff is the best staff I’ve ever worked with,” said Dzielak, who has already found a new position at another local Catholic school, which her daughter will also attend. “It was devastating.”
Around half of the schools’ approximately 200 students have already been placed in other nearby Catholic schools. While the students’ new schools are making efforts to make sure they will be able to receive the same amount of financial assistance, it’s not guaranteed, said DeAngelo. All Saints’ current students will be finishing the academic year remotely.
Around the country, it’s a similar story in different locations, with a sense that the worst may be yet to come.
“The real concern is the people who say they’re coming next year, who registered for the schools. Are they actually going to be able to come is the big unknown,” said Steven Cheeseman, superintendent of schools for the diocese in Bridgeport, Connecticut, which announced in April that it won’t be able to reopen one of its schools, after the pandemic hindered its ability to recruit students.
One school in Allentown, Pennsylvania, had already been suffering from declining enrollment and sustaining the school was increasingly cutting into its parish’s savings. Then the coronavirus hit, and “weekly collections over the past eight weeks have been far less than could support the school,” Matt Kerr, secretary for external affairs for the Diocese of Allentown, said in an e-mail. The diocese announced the closure in April.
Mears speculated that 100 closed schools is likely an underestimate, and that the number of permanent closures will grow in coming months.
“I would hate for our country to lose a great source of education,” she said.
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