The Archdiocese of Boston announced the closure of 10% of its schools earlier this year with fears that even more would have to close this fall. But increased enrollment due to parents wanting in person learning during the pandemic is turning that around.
“This almost sounds like [Charles] Dickens,” said Thomas Carroll, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Boston. “It was the best of times and the worst of times.”
Earlier this year Boston saw “the largest single-year drop in our number of school closures in almost 50 years,” Carroll said.
The archdiocese had a couple dozen more schools that were “on the fence” of being closed this fall, even though it’s extremely uncommon to close schools during that time, Carroll said. But Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley and Carroll decided to hold off closing any more to see “what the summer and September brings.”
“We were bracing ourselves for that possibility and that it could be a large number of schools,” Carroll said. “And when you get an extra 4,000 kids, that changes everything.”
The increased enrollment has been seen across the state. While the phones are still ringing, Springfield’s Catholic schools have already seen an increase of 700 new students, many of which are in the Berkshires. The Diocese of Worcester also reports getting an influx of inquires but doesn’t expect to have official numbers until later this semester. They do, however, have a waiting list for many schools.
“Nearly all of our schools are dealing with an increased demand for space,” said David Perda, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Worcester. “And that’s led to a waiting list.”
But the waiting list is a welcome problem, one he hopes he can continue working on even after the pandemic.
“If things get back to normal, and that interest remained, that’d be the answer to our prayers,” he said. “That would be great to have to deal with that problem of how to find space for all that want to get into Catholic education. It’d be my pleasure to deal with that problem.”
In Springfield, some of the new enrollment is helping equal out those who decided not to stay with a Catholic education, said Daniel Baillargeon, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Springfield.
“In some of our larger schools, our overall numbers actually are down a little bit,” he said, adding that it’s also normal to lose a number of students after eighth grade each year.
It’s also giving the diocese a bit of cushion, Baillargeon said. While they didn’t have any plans to close schools this year, they were having to think about restructuring how some of them were running.
They might continue those talks but with a little more breathing room, he said.
Earlier this summer Carroll also stated that in order to keep private and parochial schools afloat during the pandemic, any stimulus package out of Washington must include money for them, not just public schools, State House News Service reported.
He got his wish when the CARES Act included allocating money to private schools using a formula based on how many students from low-income families attended. Although he noted the money has been slow to come in.
Extra expenses during this time include extra janitorial and sanitation services and being able to equip each classroom with the technology needed for remote learning, if needed.
Of course the additional money and increased enrollment doesn’t mean schools won’t close in the future. Carroll said there’s a range of reasons a school might close.
“Shifting demographics being the most obvious one,” he said. “A school in a particular neighborhood may have made sense 75 years ago. But there may not be enough kids there to have a school today.”
The next challenge, however, is getting students and families to stay once the pandemic is over.
“One of the things that is really effective in selling our schools to families is to have them on our campuses for tours,” said Baillargeon. “In this case, they’re with us full-time.”
From there they just do “what our schools have done successfully for a long time.”
This is something Catholic schools have been thinking about for a long time, not just during the pandemic, said Kathleen Porter-Magee, superintendent of Partnership Schools in New York and the author of “Catholic on the Inside: Putting Values Back at the Center of Education Reform.” But it’s not time to let up on those efforts.
“We cannot get distracted,” she said. “At this moment when enrollments are increasing, that’s when you need to double down on those efforts to make sure that this isn’t just a flash in the pan.”
And it’s important to not let this opportunity pass by Catholic school leaders say.
“The Lord works in mysterious ways,” said Perda.
Porter-Magee echoed Baillargeon’s plan that it’s about getting families to experience “strong faith build school communities.” And with the pandemic and increased interest, they have a unique experience to do that in a way they haven’t before.
“We are always focused on how we can really help them be who God meant them to be,” she said. “Once you get the students in the door, you’ll be much more likely to keep them.”
It’ll also help combat any myths about the schools, Baillargeon said.
“I think that some people have have misconceptions about Catholic schools, and then when they’re in our schools they realize that our schools really are good fits for their families,” he said.
Although many are simply looking for an education that provides in person learning, Perda hopes they also realize the benefit of having “an education where God is at the center of it.”
“I think that there’s something that we have here that is just simply not available in public schools, because they can’t do it,” he said. “And if they haven’t an experience of Catholic education before, I think they’re gonna realize that there’s something unique here.”
This has also highlighted another movement — school choice.
“I think that what we’re seeing is a really strong national call to action for school choice, which I think is desperately needed,” Porter-Magee said.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has long championed for school choice and has also recently talked about the pandemic has highlighting this need.
“Parents are increasingly demanding it,” DeVos said, according to the Associated Press. “It’s becoming ever more evident that parents and students need to have more choices. I would argue that it is the ideal time to be talking about this more widely. And in fact, we are.”
But critics of school choice say it diverts badly needed money from already cash-strapped public schools.
Right now many of those opting out of public school and moving to private school are likely doing so because they have the resources to do so, possibly leaving a gap in their former school.
Those families who can pay for private schools oftentimes help advocate for their public school or help fundraise in ways other families can’t, said Kevin Murray, executive director of Massachusetts Advocates for Children (MAC).
“Given the chaos around school reopening and the experience of the spring, it is no surprise that families with some resources are opting for private school options,” Murray said. “I understand that choice, but think that the departure of any family from the system of public education hurts the entire system.”
And while parents are often attracted to the in person learning options, it’s not a guarantee.
Some schools with in person learning have already had to go back to remote learning after a student tested positive for COVID-19. Pope Francis Preparatory School announced earlier this week that they were moving to remote learning for at least two weeks after a student there tested positive for COVID-19.
And it’s likely we’ll see others.
“This is an example that likely will be repeated statewide,” Carroll tweeted. “The important thing is Catholic educators are prioritizing the health of our students and families.”
But it shouldn’t come as a surprise, Perda said.
“I think the Department of Education guidance made clear that, yeah, there are risks, but the benefits for your children is worth the risk,” he said. “And we agree with that.”
But it’s important to make a clear plan about what to do if it does happen, he said.
And the state’s Catholic schools’ ability to quickly switch to remote learning is another benefit that parents might not see in the public school, Carroll said.
“Our educational approach is going to be uninterrupted, no matter what event happens,” he said, adding this also could mean the end of snow days.
In March, Catholic schools across the state were reopened within days of closing down. The quick turnaround time was important to families. Now, they’re even more prepared.
“If we had to close the school down for whatever reason, our teachers are already trained, we already have the technology, we already have the tools that we need in order to do that very quickly,” Baillargeon said.
And when all of this is settled, the work they’ve done for families won’t be forgotten, he said.
“I don’t think people are going to forget that in this time of need for children, that a large number of public schools just walked away,” Carroll said. “And it’s not lost on people that we stepped up.”