BRAINTREE, MA — Two Catholic schools on the South Shore have permanently closed their doors, falling victim to the coronavirus pandemic.
Education experts said Catholic school enrollment across the United States has declined for decades now, but COVID-19 was the final nail in the coffin for St. Francis of Assisi School in Braintree, St. Jerome in Weymouth and other Catholic schools throughout the country.
According to data compiled by the National Catholic Education Association, in the early '60s, there were more than 5.2 million students in almost 13,000 thousand Catholic schools across the U.S. Those numbers have been on a steady decline since, and today, there are a little more than 1.7 million students at just under 6,200 schools.
Kathy Mears, the association's CEO, told Patch the initial enrollment decline came as families moved to the suburbs and rising tuition costs that originated from fewer nuns being involved in education and teachers needing to be hired.
"We have to pay teachers a salary and charge more tuition and not everyone can afford tuition, and others choose not to," Mears said.
And now in the midst of a global pandemic, Mears said many schools throughout the country struggling with enrollment will not survive. Mears, who spent five years as the school superintendent for the Boston Archdiocese, said St. Francis of Assisi School and St. Jerome are among dozens of Catholic schools nationwide that were forced to shutter amid the coronavirus crisis.
"Braintree is not unique in that respect at all," Mears said. "Every day for the last four or five weeks, there's been at least one school closing."
The pandemic hurt Catholic schools in two major ways, according to Pears. Schools aren't just struggling to get new students, but also to retain their own students.
In some parishes, parents aren't re-enrolling their children because they don't know if they'll have a job —or they don't want to pay for what very possibly could be online learning in the fall, Mears said.
The other way schools suffered was from the cancellation of spring fundraising events. Mears said plenty of Catholic schools rely on that fundraising revenue to stay open.
The Effect On Parents
Catholic school parents, particularly in Braintree, expressed they felt blindsided by the closure of schools.
Parents said if they knew about enrollment issues at St. Francis before COVID-19, they would have raised money and offered support to help the school in any way they could. As of Friday afternoon, nearly 1,700 people have signed a parent-organized petition to save the school.
Families were notified Tuesday of the closure in a letter from Father Paul Clifford who cited the economic devastation from the coronavirus as the reason for the school's shuttering. Clifford said the pandemic affected enrollment, which has already seen a steady decline over the last few years.
"The realities presented by COVID-19 have had a disastrous impact on the school's financial situation and make it impossible for us to provide the safe, excellent, and value-based education you expect and deserve from our school going forward," Clifford said in the letter.
But what has upset parents the most has been a lack of transparency among the school's financial issues prior to the pandemic, according to Serenity Belo, Joanne Hernandez and other parents.
"If we had another year, we could have come up with a plan," Hernandez said. "We could have thought of other ways to create income."
"If you have given us a heads up and said ‘We're struggling,' we could have walked away and still failed, but we could have said we tried," Belo said.
Parent Kate Herbst said the closing could not have happened at a worse time. She's left now in a difficult position where she has to find a new school for her children in the midst of a global pandemic.
"We have to find a new school we can't even go to because of the pandemic, and some aren't even calling back," Herbst told Patch.
And what makes that situation worse is the stress this has put on the children who don't want to go to another school, Belo said. Belo said her daughter had trouble sleeping when she found out about the closure Tuesday night.
"In addition to what's going on politically, but also in people’s homes where people are losing their jobs and have all these stresses, the one constant has been these teachers giving these students exactly what they need."
Patch reached out to Thomas Carrol, the school superintendent for the Archdiocese of Boston for comment and will update if we hear back.
Former Superintendent Mears said she emphasizes with the frustrations of these families. She said there's never a good time to close schools, but given COVID-19, Catholic school closings nationwide have been unavoidable.
"My heart breaks for the parents," Mears said. "I don't know the process they (the school) use, but there are more unknowns this year than ever before. We have to be honest. Things we could know about a school last year have changed."
Mears said people didn't like when she had to close schools as superintendent either.
"You don’t become superintendent wanting to close Catholic schools, but I do understand the frustration of the parents," Mears said. "Catholic schools are gifts to the nation. We provide quality education and a choice for the parents. Catholic schools provide a choice, and when they close, a choice is taken away. It's a struggle."