Catholic schools report enrollment growth as they offer full in-person learning
In the past, Courtney and Joe Whalen had pondered whether a Catholic school education might be a better fit for their children than their local public school.
Then came the pandemic, and school shut down entirely.
“I had given it thought in the past, I had been looking, but then everything happened and all of a sudden we had to deal with all-remote learning,” Courtney said.
Courtney, Joe and their two children, 8-year old Liam and 7-year old Lauren, live in Bridgewater, where the children had been attending George Mitchell Elementary School. Liam was in first grade and Lauren in kindergarten.
“The biggest problems were lack of routine, lack of daily interaction with their peers especially, and they wanted to see their friends,” Courtney said of their remote learning experience.
“I worried about the lack of structure with them not in school day after day, and it seemed concerning for how it would impact their mental health the longer it went on,” Joe said.
Courtney, who is a math teacher at Pembroke High School, said it seemed especially hard for Lauren to do schoolwork and not have daily in-person rapport with her teacher.
In June, when the public school district’s plans for the fall remained unclear, the couple decided to contact St. Mary’s Catholic School in Mansfield.
“We just felt there seemed to be a lack of organization in how districts would resolve all of this and get back to an in-person format, and we were determined despite all that was going on, we wanted our children to be able to attend in-person and thrive,” Joe said.
Courtney said the assurance from St. Mary’s Principal Matthew Bourque that the school would be able to offer full in-person learning for the fall clinched it for them.
It turns out they were hardly alone.
“There was an uptick in inquiries and applications for the diocese schools in June, and it grew by July and by the first week of August our phones were ringing off the hook,” says Sandi Duxbury, vice president of marketing for the Catholic Schools Alliance, which represents the 20 Catholic schools overseen by the Diocese of Fall River. (The diocese also operates The Little Flower Early Learning Center in Attleboro.)
Diocesan schools include 15 Pre-K to grade 8 elementary schools, one middle school, and four high schools spread among Bristol County communities stretching from Attleboro and surrounding towns, to Fall River and out to Cape Cod.
The high schools, with larger enrollments, including Bishop Feehan in Attleboro, have returned with a hybrid model of instruction.
Catholic schools nationwide have not been immune from the impact of the pandemic. Abrupt changes to the finances of many families last spring led to significant numbers of students forced to withdraw, which in turn forced the closure of certain schools.
In the Fall River Diocese, Coyle & Cassidy High School in Taunton and St. Margaret’s Primary School, a pre-K to grad 4 school in Buzzards Bay, closed last April.
The diocese schools are bolstered by the support provided by the Foundation to Advance Catholic Education, which grants scholarships to families needing tuition assistance. That assistance, says Duxbury, has been invaluable during this challenging period.
“There has been an uptick in families impacted by COVID who never before had a tuition need but have reached out to us this year,” she said.
In addition to providing religious education, Catholic schools generally operate with a more simplified administrative structure than their public counterparts and significantly smaller student enrollment sizes.
Those features enable them to be well positioned to offer full in-person school this fall, Duxbury said, adding that in the face of the pandemic, schools are utilizing every inch of their facilities and parish grounds.
“We created one-way hallways, some classes have been moved into a gym, some are utilizing a parish hall space and even an outside garden, and we provided our schools with over $250,000 worth of PPE supplies,” said Duxbury.
Still, not every family seeking a Catholic school slot got one.
“Unfortunately for many schools, the grades filled up quickly and we could not bring in all the applicants, so they have had to go to waiting lists,” she said.
That’s why the Whalens say they feel fortunate they were able to get their children into St. Mary’s, and add that so far things have worked out well.
“Another thing we really liked is the ratio. A teacher has no more than 20 students, while last year Lauren was in a class of 29. The ratios are just really good,” Courtney said.
Joe said that, like most parents, he had initial concerns over how his children would adapt to wearing masks at school five days a week, but that too, has not been a problem.
“It’s amazing the kids have adapted so well to the masks and the other new protocols. When I’ve seen how well they’ve adopted, I thought, ‘Why can’t we figure this out everywhere?’” he said.
St. Mary’s, like many elementary schools, gives students a few “mask breaks” during outside recess, which are scheduled twice a day.
Courtney adds that her children have been able to make new friends among their masked schoolmates, something that had worried her.
“Their transition could not have been smoother,” she said.