Despite closures elsewhere, Utah Catholic schools preparing to reopen in August
SALT LAKE CITY — After a few weeks, Summer Jump Start students at J.E. Cosgriff Memorial Catholic School know the routine pretty well.
They arrive a few moments before 9 a.m. As they enter the front door, a staff member checks each student’s temperature and ensures they are wearing a mask. Then it’s off to a clean classroom with desks spaced several feet apart.
In one room, third grade teacher Hailey Liljenquist engages four attentive students about shapes and fractions. Next door, another teacher, Martina Gehrig, instructs two fifth grade students seated at desks while others observe via Zoom technology. Down the hall, Beth Walz, the kindergarten teacher, plays a memory matching game with two students.
Amid the social distancing, masks and hand sanitizer, J.E. Cosgriff Principal Betsy Hunt has noticed one common theme.
“Students have been excited to return to the classroom,” she said. “Hosting summer school has been a preview and opportunity to practice safe guidelines for the start of the 2020-21 school year.”
For Superintendent Mark Longe, J.E. Cosgriff’s summer program shows how Utah’s Catholic schools are holding steady despite reports of other Catholic schools around the United States struggling or not reopening in the fall.
The Associated Press reported in June that as many as 100 Catholic schools will not reopen in the fall due to the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of those schools are located in the eastern United States, but the number could double in the coming months, according to Sister Dale McDonald, the public policy director of the National Catholic Educational Association.
There are currently about 6,000 Catholic schools in the United States. During the 1970s the U.S. was home to about 11,000 schools. Since 2007, roughly 1,000 schools have closed, according to Catholic News Agency.
Key factors include families dealing with recent job loss and inability to afford tuition; the loss of weekly collections and tithes from in-person worship services by parishes that operate schools; and the cancellation of pivotal school fundraisers last spring.
At this point there are no plans to close any of Utah’s 16 Catholic schools. A new year of learning is scheduled to start on Aug. 17, the superintendent said.
“We hope to open as close to a regular school year and school day as possible,” Longe said. “All of the principals are planning phased-in situations that align with the state’s color codes. So we’re preparing.”
Utah’s Catholic schools are primarily funded through tuition, fundraising on the local level and some grants. The schools also took advantage of assistance through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. These resources made it possible for faculty and staff to keep their jobs and maintain a high level of instruction through remote learning during a fragile time, Longe said.
“Because parents fund tuition, it depends on whether they are able to keep their jobs and they feel they can continue to support their children in Catholic schools,” Longe said. “So we’re OK this year, and hopefully if we’re able to continue and open up we’ll be OK in the future.”
Another plus is that most parents can drop off and pick up their students. Utah’s Catholic schools don’t have to worry about the dilemma of transporting kids on a bus with social distancing, which may be a challenge for others.
Longe praised administrators, faculty and parents for working together to keep things going during the pandemic. He also expressed gratitude for community support.
“Our community is very strong,” he said. “Administrators have helped organize and the teachers that have carried it out. They are the real heroes in all of this.”
Ann Fowler was among the parents who dropped off a child at J.E. Cosgriff Memorial Catholic School Monday morning. Her daughter Amelia is in Liljenquist’s third grade classroom. Fowler has been impressed with the teachers and community support over the last several months.
“I’m a working mom and my husband works. We get overwhelmed with all we have to do,” said Fowler, a doctor at Ogden Regional Medical Center. “People are passionate about the school. They make it easy to want to keep going because it’s a family.”
Longe acknowledged a gradual decline in the overall Catholic schools system in recent years with an increase in closures this year for financial reasons. But generally speaking, things aren’t that bad — yet.
“If you were to look at most dioceses, most schools are continuing to operate,” he said. “Right now I don’t think it’s a trend. If things become progressively worse and parents no longer have a steady source of income, things could go bad very quickly, not just for Catholic schools but for private schools.”
For now, more than 200 Catholic schools in Southern California plan to resume classroom instruction this fall with appropriate safety measures.
The Archdiocese of Chicago has also announced reopening schools for in-class learning in the fall.
“We have every intention of having our students return to their classrooms when the school year begins in the fall,” Cardinal Blase Cupich said.
Things could still change dramatically before August, but Longe and other Catholic educators hope and pray that circumstances will improve.
“Time will tell,” he said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen, so we remain hopeful that people in Utah will be responsible and stay safe. If we do that, then our hope is that we’ll continue staying at least yellow and being able to open schools.”
Utah’s Catholic schools are committed to following state guidelines. Hunt says teachers at J.E. Cosgriff are ready to return to the classroom, but if necessary, can return to online instruction as well.
“The Catholic Schools made a commitment when distance learning first began in March,” Hunt said. “This commitment was to hold all students to a very high standard with regard to academic learning and performance. Students were eager and responsive to Zoom, online instruction and practice in addition to necessary assessment for grading purposes.”
Fowler hopes her children will be back in the classroom because they have missed it.
“I think this has been a good eye-opener and learning experience. A lot of what we’re doing now we should have been doing. It’s creating a culture of being aware, being respectful with your illnesses ... so a lot of good things,” Fowler said. “But I hope that we can get back to where we were and see each other again. It’s the hardest part. The kids need their culture and friends.”