COVID-19 shows Catholic schools are a necessity

For nearly a year, millions of students haven’t set foot in a classroom — an unimaginable disruption that has profoundly affected the lives of America’s youngest generation. I promise you, one day, historians will revisit our pandemic-era schooling decisions and wonder: What were they thinking? 

In the Philadelphia area, where I live, certain government-run suburban and city school districts are only beginning to reopen. Nearby Catholic schools, though, have managed to maintain in-person instruction, while reporting nearly zero COVID-19 spread

The evidence is clear: remote learning — which remains pervasive in public schools — has negatively affected children, from a sense of isolation to medical and psychological issues. And parents aren’t stupid. They want the best education for their children that can be safely administered. That’s why they’re seeking educational alternatives, such as Catholic schools, now more than ever.

Though Catholic schools serve as a critical lifeline for in-person learning throughout the U.S. — even in cities where teachers’ unions have fought against reopening school districts — these schools are staring down their own uncertain future.  

For decades, Catholic schools have served families with just a fraction of public schools’ resources. Now they’re confronting their own challenges of being stretched too thin for too long. I’m worried that the economic fallout of pandemic restrictions will force many to close, including in Philadelphia. Where will these students turn if districts refuse to reopen?

Greater Philadelphia’s Catholic schools have served families since before the Civil War, when Archbishop John Neumann began a parochial system that served immigrant children. For generations, these schools shaped countless lives. Their academic legacy ultimately expanded beyond Philadelphia’s borders and into the city’s suburbs. 

This is the case in Drexel Hill, just outside of Philadelphia, where St. Andrew’s serves children of all social and economic backgrounds. The school, opened in 1922, is also continuing the tradition of educating immigrant families. Just ask Fatimah Toure, a refugee from Liberia, who has experienced firsthand how Catholic schools can be difference-makers.

Toure’s son, Abraham, was attending Harris Elementary School in the Southeast Delco School District when she started receiving frequent calls about her son’s lack of focus and disruptive behavior. The teachers’ solution? Medication to help Abraham focus. “I know my son, and he is not a problem child,” Toure recalled. “We need to try other things before medication.”

But the calls continued and Toure knew she had to take action. As a mother of three with a limited income, though, she didn’t know where to turn. Then she learned about St. Andrew’s, which offered flexible payment plans. “Please, you are my last hope,” Toure begged St. Andrew’s admissions office. After an interview, the school agreed to enroll Abraham, along with his brother, Baba. 

At St. Andrew’s, Abraham’s behavior problems were handled differently. His new teachers didn’t see him as a problem to be solved but as a young boy who required more attention than his peers. Today, he is thriving. Toure, like any mother, wants what is best for her children — and she found it at St. Andrew’s.  

But for how long?

In the past year, a troubling number of Greater Philadelphia’s Catholic schools announced their closure. South Philadelphia’s St. Gabriel’s, which opened in 1909, will close in June. Last November, the archdiocese announced that two regional high schools — including America’s first all-girls Catholic school — will close. And St. Basil Academy, run by a Ukrainian Catholic order of nuns, will shutter after operating since 1931. 

This unfortunate trend is national in scope — and a devastating development for those parents whose children benefit from a Catholic education. For schools such as St. Andrew’s, much depends on what happens in Washington, where America’s second Catholic president now occupies the White House.  

President Biden, a proud graduate of a Catholic school — suburban Wilmington’s Archmere Academy — often references his faith in public. But how will Biden help Catholic schools? After all, they’ve accomplished so much this year despite comparatively limited resources. 

Right now, vast sums of money are being sent to school districts whose doors are shut, while parents are being ignored. If Biden wants to be a true unifier, he must continue President Trump’s focus on school choice programs that help parents afford to choose the right school for their kids.

Catholic schools, in Philadelphia and elsewhere, serve an irreplaceable role — one dating to Neumann’s days, when he established an educational alternative for immigrants. As Toure’s story reminds us, we must not allow Catholic education to become another casualty of COVID-19. 

Jennifer Stefano is vice president and chief innovation officer for the Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free-market think tank. Follow her on Twitter @jenniferstefano.

Tags Catholic school coronavirus school closures COVID-19 pandemic Donald Trump Joe Biden School choice

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