Yet no matter what challenges await, all 16 diocesan elementary schools appear well-suited to handle them.
The 2020-21 school year saw many successes in spite of COVID-19, including markedly increased enrollment, solid academic results and effective implementation of pandemic-related safety measures.
Amy Johnson, for one, said she feels that the versatility demonstrated by students, families, faculty and staff in order to make those achievements — not to mention simply keep functioning effectively — will prove to be assets moving forward.
“You learn what to do when you have to do it. We turned on a dime, and we turned really, really well,” said Johnson, principal of St. Joseph School in Penfield. “Everybody worked together so well. When you have a big task and then when you find out that, yes, you can do this, there’s this feeling of competency. It’s amazing.”
“There’s a huge sense of accomplishment,” agreed James Tauzel, diocesan superintendent of schools, who lauded the teamwork and cooperation of all involved: “They’re what’s always made us successful, and the pandemic amplified that. We’re seeing the faith of our communities in action.”
Enrollment keeps rising
Those school communities are continuing to increase in size. According to statistics provided by the diocesan Department of Catholic Schools, the overall number of students attending diocesan schools in 2020-21 was 2,438 for prekindergarten through grade 8, with several schools reporting at least a 10-percent increase over 2019-20. Enrollment is projected to rise to approximately 2,600 for the upcoming year — an increase of about 7 percent.
Tauzel said that the enrollment uptick during 2020-21 was made possible by ample space being available at all diocesan schools for in-person education five days per week, based on New York state social-distancing guidelines. Meanwhile, public schools turned to online-only as well as hybrid models combining in-person and online instruction to provide social distancing for students.
Now, public schools are gearing up for a return to five-day, in-person instruction in 2021-22 — a development that initially concerned Tauzel, since new families might decide to return to their public districts after only a year at Catholic schools. But instead, he’s found that demand for Catholic education continues rising, with most of last year’s new families having re-registered.
One of the most notable success stories in that regard is St. Joseph in Penfield. Approximately 300 children are registered in prekindergarten through grade 6 for 2021-22 — the school’s highest enrollment in about a decade, Johnson said. This marks St. Joseph’s second year of big increases, following enrollments of 263 in 2020-21 and 221 in 2019-20. The principal noted that her school has accommodated the influx of students by utilizing St. Joseph Church’s hall and other parish space.
Along with the availability of full-time, in-person learning, Johnson and Tauzel cited the spiritual and family atmosphere as a big draw offered by Catholic schools.
“I think it’s largely about community, the feeling that this is a caring place,” Johnson remarked.
Proven academic achievement also has been vital in retaining students, Tauzel said. Based on diagnostic testing taken three times during 2020-21, he said that students in kindergarten through grade 8 across the diocese averaged 119-percent growth in reading — 19 percent over projected goals — as well as 113-percent growth in math.
And, by strictly following state guidance in such areas as mask-wearing, social distancing, temperature screenings, hand-washing and cleaning of buildings, Tauzel said that no positive cases of COVID-19 originated at any of the diocesan schools last school year.
“We trusted that the safety guidelines would work, and they did,” Tauzel said.
All told, Tauzel said more and more new families are finding enough value in Catholic schools to keep shouldering the tuition costs (see related story on page 12).
“We fully recognize that the cost of a Catholic education requires sacrifice. But I think families are willing to make that sacrifice, now that they’re seeing the benefits children get from it,” he remarked.
Adjustments still ahead
In order to maximize those benefits, Tauzel said diocesan schools have grown accustomed to “being nimble” in the face of pandemic-related curveballs, especially beginning in March 2020 when COVID-19 forced in-person learning to abruptly shut down and give way to remote instruction the rest of that school year.
Tauzel said diocesan schools continued to offer remote learning in 2020-21 for a small segment of the Catholic-school population who preferred that model due to health concerns. Yet with statewide COVID-19 rates having declined over the past several months, remote instruction is being largely phased out, he said. Teachers “did remarkably well with it, but it comes with a cost” in terms of their ability to fully engage simultaneously with in-person and online students, he said.
Yet Tauzel acknowledged that the virus still poses a strong community threat — especially with the recent emergence of the highly contagious Delta variant. “We’re not out of the woods yet,” he said.
Adding to uncertainties is the fact that, despite ongoing clinical trials, no COVID-19 vaccine has yet met federal governmental approval for children under age 12. Thus, only a tiny percentage of diocesan Catholic-school students will begin the school year having been vaccinated. Tauzel said it could take several months before younger children can receive a vaccine — and even then, he’s not sure how many will get vaccinated.
The superintendent explained that diocesan Catholic schools will publicize information about vaccines but not mandate that each student receive one. “Our perspective is that an available vaccine is a parent choice,” he said.
On the other hand, lesser flexibility exists regarding the wearing of face masks. “We do fall under state regulations,” Tauzel said, noting that some people have mistakenly assumed Catholic schools can create their own masking policies because they’re private.
Whether or not students and staff will be obligated to wear masks come September was still unknown in late July. Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced July 28 that he is recommending that all students and adults mask up in schools for the 2021-22 school year — but as of that date, the state Department of Health had not yet issued official guidance on masking. Tauzel said that he and other school administrators across the state are anxious to receive directives from the state as soon as possible.
Whatever adjustments lie ahead, Johnson said “we’re optimistic and confident that we can stay safe” at St. Joseph School and that she’s looking forward to seeing her growing student body in another month.
“We’re just here to provide a great education for kids, and we’re grateful that more people are choosing Catholic education,” she said.