PROVIDENCE — Catholic schools in Rhode Island and elsewhere in the United States have weathered dozens of challenges over the centuries.
Anti-Catholic bigotry. Dramatic drops in vocations from Religious Orders with teaching charisms. Financial crises. Demographic shifts that led to decreased enrollments and half-empty school buildings. And now, a global pandemic.
“We’re getting through it, and our kids are learning. They are drawing closer to Jesus. They’re surviving, and they’re thriving,” said Daniel Ferris, the superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Providence.
As National Catholic Schools Week approaches, Ferris and Catholic educators in the diocese reflected in an interview with Rhode Island Catholic on everything they and their colleagues have experienced over the past year in educating Catholic school children amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“It hasn’t been perfect. It’s not what we’d want, but we’re doing what God has always called us to do, and that’s keep our doors open, teach the faith, provide strong academics, and prepare kids for a life of meaning, vocation and service,” Ferris said.
The last ten months have been a whirlwind for Catholic schools since COVID-19 swept through the United States last March, prompting governors to issue stay-at-home orders and public health officials to issue guidelines for people to protect themselves and vulnerable loved ones.
Last spring, over the span of a weekend, Catholic school principals and teachers in Rhode Island transitioned their classroom instruction entirely to the virtual realm. In the ensuing weeks and months, they put together reopening plans to safely resume in-person instruction once fall arrived.
“That’s been the challenge, to preserve that in-person education, and that’s also been our success this year,” said Ferris, who described the communitarian aspect of in-person classroom learning as part and parcel of the “ethos” of Catholic education.
“That really has been our challenge this year, to make sure we continue that collective pursuit of truth, even when kids have to go out on distance learning, when they’re six feet apart and wearing masks, or when you have 20 kids in a class and they’re all at home Zooming in from their bedrooms or dining room tables,” Ferris said.
The efforts to keep Catholic schools safe for in-person learning required principals, administrators and teachers to invest in sanitizing and cleaning equipment, clear plastic partitions to place in between students’ desks and personal protective equipment such as face masks.
To maintain social distancing — keeping students at least six feet apart from each other during school hours — class sizes were reduced, which has caused several Catholic schools in Rhode Island to have waiting lists for students even as overall Catholic school enrollment in the state is down from a year ago.
“It’s a paradox we’ve never dealt with before,” said Ferris, who added that many parents across the state have also put their children in Catholic schools for the first time this year because their local public school systems were entirely remote.
“We hope those kids will stay with us,” Ferris said.
“Across the country and in our diocese, there has been a continued effort to make sure that students have not only the safest environment but the best environment for them to learn about Jesus through Gospel teachings and to get an outstanding education in what are very trying times,” said David Estes, the principal of the Prout School in Wakefield.
Estes, a former U.S. Army logistics officer, said he drew on his military experience as he and his staff tried to plan for every imaginable contingency that could arise during the pandemic.
“As we say in the Army, plans are good until you have your first contact with the enemy,” Estes said. “We thought through contingencies, and even when novel things came up that we didn’t expect, at least we had thought around some of those issues ahead of time.”
The contagious nature of the novel coronavirus has inevitably led to some teachers and students in the Catholic schools testing positive for COVID-19. In several instances, entire classes were quarantined, and schools were shut down for a few days of deep cleaning and follow-up testing.
At Prout, Estes said his staff learned how to do contact tracing when staff learned that a student or faculty member had either tested positive for the virus or been possibly exposed to COVID-19.
“If we knew anybody was a close contact in our community, we would not open up the next day until we knew everybody had been contacted,” Estes said, “and sometimes we’ve had to miss days because of that.”
At the Father John V. Doyle School in Coventry, Principal Kevin Peloquin said students and staff members have tested positive for the coronavirus since the beginning of the academic year.
“It’s very dependent on an individual case basis, because it’s not always the same protocols that are used,” Peloquin said. “It depends on when was the last time they were in school, how long they were in school during the contagious period, whether or not they were symptomatic.
“The most important thing is that your staff and students are healthy,” Peloquin added. “So, while we have had some positive cases, we’re really grateful that at most they’ve just had minor symptoms, so it hasn’t been too challenging to navigate that.”
To date, Ferris said there have not been any known instances of “community spread” in Rhode Island’s Catholic schools.
“There are students who have tested positive and there are kids who are quarantining, but it’s not because they’ve been picking it up from classmates,” Ferris said. “They’re not getting it in the school. Some students have contracted it from outside activities with other students, but not in the schools.”
As more people get vaccinated and the pandemic recedes, Catholic educators will be left wondering how their schools will be changed in the years ahead. Zoom meetings and Google Classroom will not be used as often, but that kind of technology will be increasingly integrated into Catholic education.
“Distance learning will always be an alternative, and there will be a considerable increase in educational technology in our classrooms, but only to enhance and enrich personalized learning,” said Ferris, who emphasized that virtual learning “is not the future” for Catholic schools in Rhode Island.
“It’s not that the ethos of a Catholic education can’t be communicated in a virtual space,” Ferris said. “It’s because it’s not most true to who we are as Catholic educators in Catholic schools. When you go fully virtual, you lose a sense of community. You lose that sacramentality.”
One lasting effect of the COVID-19 pandemic may be a new understanding of how important the support of donors, alumni, parents, nonprofits and other community organizations is and will continue to be for the long-term sustainability of Catholic schools.
“Many of our schools have put out COVID relief fund appeals,” Ferris said. “Because we’ve had parents who are out of work, we need so much more scholarship money this year, and we’re going to need a lot more next year too.”
“Donors have really stepped up, and this has been an opportunity to really work with them and bring our donors closer to the mission of Catholic schools and let them share a greater role in the sustainability of Catholic education,” Ferris added.
In addition to donors helping Catholic schools to purchase everything from personal protective equipment to new laptop computers for students, Catholic school principals and teachers this year also sought out temporary government assistance and grants to cover COVID-related expenses.
“The bottom line is you just have to get a little creative,” Principal Peloquin said.