Bishop: Pandemic Has ‘Providential Opportunity’ for U.S. Catholic Education

WINDSOR TERRACE — The old saying, “Every cloud has a silver lining,” asserts that there is a portion of good amid turmoil like the outbreak of a deadly disease.

The saying fits Catholic education during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the perspectives of Bishop Thomas A. Daly of Spokane, Wash.

“The pandemic,” he said, “has given us a providential opportunity to really examine why we have our Catholic schools in the midst of so much illness, and difficulty, and hardship, and really despair.”

Last month, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops elected him to chair its Committee on Catholic Education. This panel guides Catholic elementary and secondary schools, colleges, universities, and college campus ministries across the U.S.

Bishop Daly, 60, is a native of San Francisco with experience in Catholic schools as a teacher, administrator, parish priest, and, since 2015, prelate for the Diocese of Spokane.

In an interview Monday, Nov. 30 with Currents News, Bishop Daly discussed the essential role of education based on Catholic values, especially salvation through knowing Jesus Christ.

Bishop Daly related Matthew 19:14 in which Jesus said, “Let the children come to me.”

“We educate in the great tradition of Jesus,” he said. “No one has that, but the church, and maybe we are helping our parents to say, ‘this is a priority.’”

However, he noted that secular culture in the U.S. oft-times is hostile toward Catholicism and its schools.

He said recent hostility reminds him of the “Know-Nothing” movement of the 1800s. In this movement, native-born citizens clashed with Catholic immigrants, such as Irish newcomers to Manhattan, as depicted in the film “Gangs of New York.”

Students work at their desks on the first day of the new school year at St. Matthew School in Franklin, Tenn., Aug. 6, 2020, with extensive COVID-19 protocols in place, including temperature screening and mandatory face masks for each student. (Photo: CNS/ Rick Musacchio, Tennessee Register)

Gospel is Attractive

But, Bishop Daly noted, the gospel is attractive, especially to children.

“In my own experience as a priest, and an administrator, and a teacher, I know young people are drawn to the truth — Jesus Christ,” he said. “So in one sense, the Catholic schools are needed now more than ever.”

Perhaps another “silver lining” might be the increased enrollments in some Brooklyn diocese schools. 

Six campuses permanently closed over the summer, but others picked up more students, some from public-schools families that saw how the diocese had implemented procedures to keep the students safe. 

For example, St. Stanislaus Kostka Catholic School in Maspeth, Queens, saw its enrollment grow by 105 students, including 33 from public schools. St. Kevin Catholic Academy in Flushing, Queens, added 50 new students.

Bishop Daly said he saw similar growth in Spokane.

“We have waiting lists,” he said.

However, Catholic education benefits diminish if students get the coronavirus at school and, in turn, pass the virus to family members.

Bishop Daly has estimated that the pandemic contributed to the closure of at least 140 Catholic schools in the U.S. Included were 20 in the Archdiocese of New York. 

Fewer students translate into lost tuition and, consequently, less revenue for operating expenses.

Meanwhile, state-mandated COVID-19 testing in schools is costly.

The state of New York contributes free test kits to Catholic schools. Still, testing costs range from $2,000 to $10,000 per school, per week, according to recent estimates from Dr. Thomas Chadzutko, superintendent of schools in the Diocese of Brooklyn. 

The diocese continues to ask the state for funding to administer these tests and is working on a grant application to help cover costs. Also, the archdiocese of New York has sued the New York City Department of Education to provide COVID-19 testing to Catholic school students.

State law mandates the DOE to give non-public schools the same health and welfare services it gives public school students, according to the lawsuit.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has a different view.

We believe the law is clear that it is not the city’s obligation to provide the actual testing service,” the mayor said Tuesday, Dec. 1. “Our lawyers have looked at this carefully. 

“Look, I’ve spoken to Cardinal (Timothy) Dolan about this. It’s something I fully understand, the fact that folks in other school systems are urgently trying to protect their kids. I appreciate that.

“But our obligation right now is to continue the process of having New York City public schools be open and healthy and safe.”

The lawsuit also claims that the DOE has only provided “inferior testing options” to Catholic schools in the five boroughs.

Bishop Daly said he is aware of the litigation.

“I’m very conscious of the fact that the most immediate, pressing issues are the health and safety of our students and their families,” he said. “And of course the economic wellbeing.”

Therefore, he said, the lawsuit is appropriate.

“It is a matter of justice,” Bishop Daly said. “Our Catholic school parents pay taxes; they support the public schools. We also provide an education. And this is something that doesn’t mainly have to do with faith. It is about safety and wellbeing.”

Erin DeGregorio and Paula Katinas, reporters for The Tablet, and Christine Persichetti of Currents News contributed to this report.