Students in Susan Santaniello’s fourth grade class at St. Rose of Lima School, Massapequa, enjoy virtual classes where they can see their classmates while learning.
By Tina Dennelly
“Is anyone fearful about the future of Catholic schools?” a parent pondered recently on the Parents of Long Island Catholic School Students Facebook page.
With some parents out of work or furloughed due to the coronavirus pandemic and Sunday contributions to parishes down because churches are closed, many wonder how the events of the last two months will impact Catholic schools. But the response of Long Island Catholic schools to the pandemic and sudden shift to remote learning has impressed current school families and caused new families to consider enrolling.
While a few responded to the Facebook question that they were concerned, the more than 75 other commenters were wholeheartedly optimistic.
“Not at all! [Our school] never missed a beat,” said one. “More pleased than ever with our investment in Catholic schools,” said another. And a third: “I cannot begin to tell you how impressed I am with what Catholic schools are doing during this.”
Parents in the group whose children attend schools in the Diocese of Rockville Centre — from St. Martin of Tours in Amityville, St. Peter of Alcantara in Port Washington, Trinity Regional in East Northport, St. Rose of Lima in Massapequa, Holy Trinity High School in Hicksville, and St. Dominic’s in Oyster Bay, to name just some — said they were amazed at how quickly and how well the schools responded to the pandemic.
“St. Aidan’s [in Williston Park] has done an impeccable job in implementing distance learning,” said parent Violeta Gromulska in a comment. “The teachers’ dedication is impressive. All my emails get answered, even [at] late hours of the night. The communication is phenomenal. Especially [Principal Julie] O’Connell’s weekly messages. All subjects have been addressed — gym, art, music, Spanish, religion, etc. The structure, planning and implementation has exceeded my expectations. They even have extra help Zoom meetings on Friday for the students.”
Other parents in the group — several of whom said they are public school teachers — noted that some Long Island public school districts took weeks to begin remote learning and struggled to keep students engaged in virtual classrooms.
“I think many people were misinformed and thought Catholic schools didn’t have technology capabilities,” said Dr. Kathleen Walsh, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Rockville Centre. “We’ve always had it. … When this [pandemic] hit it really gave our schools the opportunity to show how much we can do.”
“Our teachers and principals have really done a great job,” Walsh continued. “They’ve hit the ground running. They didn’t give the children tons of busy work; they continued with the curricula, with instruction.”
St. Aidan’s principal O’Connell, who said she had three prospective families reach out recently in one week alone, noted in a comment the biggest factors in Catholic schools’ success: “Our administrators, teachers, students and parents are all working hard together, and the sharing of our faith is the piece that makes it so successful.”
The success in the Diocese of Rockville Centre’s schools mirrors the success of other diocesan school districts across the country during the pandemic. According to a May 11 article in National Catholic Register, after school buildings were ordered to close, the Archdiocese of Detroit’s Catholic schools took spring break a week early to come up with a remote learning plan and were ready to go the first day after the break. By contrast, public schools in the Detroit area ended the school year early.
Of course, that’s not to say some Catholic schools did not struggle and public schools did not succeed; however, noted the Register article: “Through it all, the unifying force in both heartache and success has been daily prayer, to trust and be strong through this difficult time.”
Walsh said she heard from several principals who said they’ve had a number of inquiries about new registrations for the fall.
“The enlightenment is due to the connection of faith and learning,” she noted. “Children start and end the day with prayer. There’s that sense of family. I think that’s what is making parents realize the connection between faith and learning.”
Morning Star Initiative continues
In January, the Diocese of Rockville Centre announced a long-term plan to strengthen, expand, support and revitalize its Catholic elementary schools (see morningstarinitiative.org). As part of the initiative, the Morning Star team in February began in-person visits to each of the 39 diocesan elementary schools to assess each school’s culture, identity and contributions. However, the New York on PAUSE order closed school buildings in March.
The team has remained busy however — it helped launch the Curriculum Leads program, which allows teachers to pool resources and share expertise with other grade-level and subject-area teachers from Catholic schools around the diocese, soon after remote instruction began in mid-March. (See the article “Diocesan schools launch innovative curriculum program to support remote instruction” here).
“The pandemic may have changed the Morning Star Initiative’s trajectory and the landscape in which we were working,” said Brother Thomas Cleary, S.M., chief revitalization officer for the Morning Star Initiative, “but it has not dampened our commitment to strengthen the Catholic elementary school system one bit!”
Funds for Catholic schools
Catholic schools are eligible for government funding under the Paycheck Protection Program, which is part of the federal coronavirus relief packages passed by Congress in March and April. Although the applications for such loans were up to the pastors and parish business managers, Walsh said she knew many diocesan schools had received funds under the program and more were promised.
“Pastors have taken an active role in applying for funds,” she said. Even if not every school is able to receive funds, Walsh noted that “Catholic schools have always done a lot with a little.”
“Even if cuts come, our schools will be able to continue to educate our students,” she said, noting that “parents play an active role in their children’s education. I very much believe in the power of parents and the connection to their school and church.”
On April 25, more than 600 Catholic leaders — including cardinals, bishops and Catholic school superintendents from around the country — discussed Catholic education on a conference call with President Donald Trump. Walsh was also on the call.
“There was an array of people who spoke to the need of support for Catholic education,” Walsh said. “They presented their case wonderfully.”
New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan noted that the current funding is only good through this academic year, according to an April 26 Crux website news article about the call. He emphasized the need for tuition assistance in the fall so parents can continue to send their children to Catholic schools. Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley pointed out that Catholic schools save public school districts (and taxpayers) an estimated $20 billion per year (source: USCCB.org).
“The president was very respectful and responsive, and affirmed what was said,” Walsh said. “He was very pro our cause, very supportive of it. He spoke of the need for respect for life and to the high graduation rates and success of Catholic schools. His attitude was ‘I will work for your interests because I believe in them.’”