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Coronavirus Pandemic Hits Catholic Schools Especially Hard


At least 100 Catholic schools - at least 100 - will close permanently because of financial stress from the pandemic. As with so much in this emergency, the impact falls most heavily on low-income parents and families of color. Here's NPR's Tom Gjelten.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Each month, more Catholic schools close. On July 6, that was St. Cornelius in Richmond, Calif. Parents were caught unprepared.

MUNA ANTOLENE: For me, it's horrible because now I've got to look for my daughter's school, my son's school.

GJELTEN: Muna Antolene's (ph) daughter was heading into seventh grade at St. Cornelius, her son into kindergarten. She could send them to another Catholic school, but they all cost more, more than she can afford on her salary as a nurse's assistant. So she'll probably put her son in a public school and focus on her daughter.

ANTOLENE: I'm trying to squeeze some numbers. And maybe I would have to do a little bit of overtime at work to be able to afford it. I don't want to put my daughter in public school because she's been in a Catholic school all her life.

GJELTEN: This is a COVID story. Catholic schools that serve low-income communities are uniquely in trouble with the economic downturn. Parents lose their jobs and can no longer afford the tuition. Enrollment declines and so does the school's revenue. Mary Pat Donoghue directs the Secretariat for Catholic Education at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

MARY PAT DONOGHUE: Usually, 80% of a budget is made up in tuition. And then the remaining 20% is made up in things like fundraisers and donations. And all of those sectors have been negatively affected.

GJELTEN: It's happening across the country. Thomas Carroll is the superintendent of Catholic schools in Boston, where nine schools have closed so far.

THOMAS CARROLL: If the school had a lot of low-income families in it, their schools got hit really hard financially. And these schools that were already on the edge, it just put them over.

GJELTEN: The Catholic school enrollment problems go back years. Many middle-class families who used to send their children to Catholic schools in urban areas moved to the suburbs and switched to public schools. Enrollment in the urban Catholic schools declined. But for the lower-income families left behind, those schools remained important. In Richmond, Calif., plagued for years by a high crime rate, parents like Muna Antolene viewed the local Catholic school as an attractive alternative.

ANTOLENE: St. Cornelius, to me, was a safe environment, educational for my kids. I'm at work, and I felt safe about leaving them there.

GJELTEN: The pattern here? The parents who depend most on Catholic schools are the ones most likely to lose them.

KATHLEEN PORTER-MAGEE: A lot of the schools that have closed - they've been exactly those Catholic schools, the ones that serve some of our neediest students.

GJELTEN: Kathleen Porter-Magee directs a network of urban Catholic schools in New York and Cleveland.

PORTER-MAGEE: They don't just serve the students' academic needs. They're often serving the social emotional needs. They're often providing a social safety net. They're helping support families.

GJELTEN: This month brought the news that at least 20 Catholic schools in the New York archdiocese are closing, six of them in the Bronx alone. And the story is not over.

CARROLL: We could be closing schools in September.

GJELTEN: Tom Carroll, the Boston superintendent.

CARROLL: Because somebody could've put down a few hundred-dollar deposit, thinking they have a job. And then all of a sudden, one of the spouses doesn't have a job anymore. And if you've got two or three kids in Catholic schools, then you're like, we can't take the risk of spending the money. And so I think there's a second wave coming that's going to hit in the fall.

GJELTEN: Carroll says the Catholic schools in Boston all got funding under the government's Paycheck Protection Program last spring, but that money will soon run out. Tom Gjelten, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF POPPY ACKROYD'S "CROFT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.