Catholic education in the United States is needed now more than ever before. That’s a…
Editorial: Looking at the present, future of Catholic education
Before the COVID-19 pandemic was a part of our daily reality, many Catholic schools faced shrinking enrollment and shrinking budgets. They experienced consolidations and closures. The future of Catholic education, especially for those schools connected with parishes and in certain locations where Catholicism was waning in general, looked bleak.
Then came March 2020 and, along with it, the final nail in the coffin of many Catholic schools struggling to stay afloat. As of this month, somewhere between 150 and 200 Catholic schools have closed since the beginning of the 2019-20 school year, and, in general across the board, enrollment at Catholic schools has seen a 6% drop. In some places, that number is higher.
The pandemic has been hard on just about everyone, but Catholic schools have had a particularly grueling time, especially those serving low-income families. In a report in July 2020, National Public Radio reported that “the closing of these schools, particularly those that serve marginalized or disadvantaged communities, is devastating.”
That’s not to say that there has been only bad news. Some well-positioned schools have sustained themselves or even thrived during this time of crisis, as our In Focus points out. “They just literally went to work to make sure they could do everything they needed to do for their students,” said Kathy Mears, the interim president and CEO of the National Catholic Educational Association. “It truly was amazing, and I don’t know if the rest of the world will ever understand fully what they accomplished.”
The same can be said for Catholic school teachers. As the world has shifted under their feet, Catholic educators found ways to navigate the many challenges for the good of their students. Whether they faced a switch to full remote learning, to an unfamiliar hybrid model, or to being back in the classroom with a multitude of procedural and environmental changes, Catholic schools teachers have given their all for their students. And this was on top of already challenging circumstances and too little pay. Catholic teachers deserve our deep appreciation and generous support as they continue to face the challenges of a COVID-era classroom. They have been, and continue to be, the frontline heroes of Catholic education, serving and loving our children in the most challenging and unexpected of circumstances.
As we celebrate Catholic Schools Week during the COVID-19 pandemic, we are reminded of two truths that may seem, upon first read, paradoxical. The first is that nothing is more important for Catholic schools than mission. As Pope Benedict XVI told Catholic educators at The Catholic University of America during his 2008 pastoral visit to the United States: “Education is integral to the mission of the Church to proclaim the Good News. First and foremost every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth.” Even those of us not affiliated directly with Catholic schools should do all we can to support them in their mission at this time, through both our prayers and financial support.
At the same time, however, we should recognize and accept that it’s OK to say goodbye to some of our beloved institutions while continuing to look ahead to potentially more effective methods to carry out the mission of Catholic education. Things cannot and should not always stay the same, and the Church constantly should be looking for what’s next in Catholic education. As our institutional footprint shifts amid significant demographic and social change, we should be asking: What does the next, best model look like? How can we better respond to the needs of our children? Most importantly, how can we best fulfill our mission of instilling the Faith in our young people in an environment of academic excellence and service?
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed much about Catholic education in this country, but it has not changed its fundamentals. “Catholic schools,” the National Catholic Educational Association reminds us, “have a specific purpose to form students to be good citizens of the world, love God and neighbor and enrich society with the leaven of the gospel and by example of faith.”
We encourage all educators and administrators to look at this time of disruption as an opportunity to grow and change for the better, and we encourage all Catholics to support them in this most challenging and important task.
Our Sunday Visitor Editorial Board: Gretchen R. Crowe, Scott P. Richert, Scott Warden, York Young