“It's very difficult for the principals to figure out what their school opening will look like; when it'll open, and what you have to do to meet all the guidelines,” MacDonald said.
“And the public schools are looking at the same thing, but they certainly have a lot more resources to be able to manage their reopening. But for us, financially, it's a big deal.”
Parents, understandably, want to know what their child's education is going to look like in the fall, MacDonald said, and many wonder whether they will be able to go back to work.
Many working-class families that send their children to Catholic schools have been impacted by illness and unemployment, and may simply not be able to pay tuition.
For most Catholic schools, MacDonald said, about 80% of their operating budget comes from tuition. In addition, many Catholic schools hold major fundraisers in the spring, which had to be canceled or postponed after the pandemic hit.
To make matters worse, many parochial elementary schools depend on contributions from parishioners. After months of no in-person Masses for most dioceses, many parishes, especially those without a robust system for online giving, are feeling the financial pinch.
Despite the large number of schools closing, in some cases donors have rallied to keep their school from going under.
Earlier this month, the Academy of Our Lady of Peace in New Jersey was saved from closure through the action of anonymous donors.
But Sister MacDonald warned that this model of saving a few schools at the last minute will likely not remain sustainable year-after-year.
“We are optimistic that things will pick up,” she said, noting that about 2,000 Catholic schools across the country have not experienced massive enrollment declines, but instead have waiting lists.
“People do want Catholic education, and our challenge at NCEA and in working with various dioceses is how to make these schools affordable and accessible for families, especially families of modest means.”
Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles oversees the largest Catholic school system in the U.S., and wrote in a June 16 column that the nation’s Catholic schools play a vital role in helping minority and low-income families.
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Nationwide, about 20% of students who attend Catholic schools in the U.S. are members of racial minorities, according to 2016 NCEA data.
In Los Angeles, that figure is significantly higher. Gomez says about 80% of Catholic school students in LA come from minority families.
For elementary school students, the average yearly cost of attendance is about $5,936, while for high school students it is $15,249, NCEA says.
Los Angeles’ Catholic Education Foundation has granted more than $200 million in scholarships to 181,000 low-income students over the past 25 years, Gomez said.
In addition, he said, the LA Catholic school system has provided nearly half a million free meals to low-income students since the start of the pandemic.
The archbishop decried the fact that 37 states still have laws on the books, known as “Blaine Amendments,” which prohibit government funding to “sectarian” schools— a 19th-century euphemism for Catholic schools, according to opponents of the laws.