Bishop Kicanas Writes Letter to the Editor

Bishop Gerald Kicanas, chair of the NCEA Board of Directors, wrote the following letter to the editor in response to a Wall Street Journal article that myopically focused on the loss of Catholic schools during COVID-19. While factually correct, Bishop Jerry wanted the world to know that the extraordinary effort by Catholic school teachers, staff and administrators to keep Catholic schools open and in-person was the rest of the story the paper neglected to tell.

The recent article in the Wall Street Journal (Catholic Schools Are Losing Students at Record Rates and Hundreds Are Closing, May 11, 2021) correctly reported the 2020-2021 data gathered by the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA), that is, 209 Catholic schools, or 6.4 percent, consolidated or closed due only in part to the pandemic. COVID significantly impacted Catholic schools as it did all schools. This school year arguably will serve as a transformative catalyst for educational change throughout all the schools in the United States and worldwide for years to come.

What is missing from the WSJ article is another side of COVID’s impact on Catholic schools. Positively, Catholic schools witnessed a creative and courageous nationwide response to the pandemic. Faced with an unprecedented tumult, Catholic schools were industry leaders, showing the nation how to rethink teaching and learning and how to safely open schools for in-person learning. This was done without the safety net of taxpayer dollars and the majority without COVID federal relief aid. A February 2021 USA Today opinion piece by Ashley McGuire, senior fellow with The Catholic Association, appropriately referred to Catholic schools as “COVID Heroes.”

Ms. McGuire is right. At the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year, nearly 90 percent of Catholic schools in all 50 states safely opened, compared to about 50 percent of public schools that reopened during the height of COVID. Furthermore, where opening for in person learning was not allowed, parochial schools fought for the right to open and in most cases they did. I attribute this to the dedication of principals and teachers serving in our Catholic schools.

Pockets of Catholic schools across the country saw an uptick in enrollment – overall 1.6 percent since September. The number of Catholic schools this school year with waiting lists has grown to almost 40 percent from 28 percent in the 2019 - 2020 school year. This can be attributed to parents struggling to find alternatives to all-remote-learning and some chose Catholic schools. An NCEA and Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities (FADICA) survey, in partnership with Meitler, highlights significant findings regarding the positive viewpoint held by parents who transferred their children to Catholic schools this year.

The closure of so many of our schools is tragic. Clearly a number of factors have led to the closings. NCEA, in collaboration with others, is seeking to clarify those reasons and develop strategies to address them. Catholic schools have a longstanding tradition of serving marginalized and underserved communities and are committed to continue that tradition. Of the nearly two million Catholic school students, 40 percent live in the inner city and 21 percent are minorities. They deserve great educational opportunities that Catholic schools provide.

The pandemic challenged everyone. It certainly challenged education in ways that likely have not yet been fully realized. Many Catholic schools were stung by enrollment loss and financial distress, yet they continue to work tirelessly to educate children entrusted to them by parents. The demise of Catholic schools is not imminent. The real story in this pandemic year are the unsung heroes: Catholic school teachers, staff, principals and administrators who have done an extraordinary job. They are the reason I am confident that Catholic school education will thrive.

Unfortunately, WSJ told one part of the story but missed the complete story.

Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas, D.D., Ph.D.
Chairman of the Board
National Catholic Educational Association
Bishop Emeritus, Diocese of Tucson