The Coronavirus and Catholic Schools

With the academic year for elementary and secondary schools soon to close, we spoke with Kevin Baxter M.A. ’01 about the challenges facing Catholic education from the COVID-19 crisis. Baxter is chief innovation officer of the National Catholic Educational Association, which is based in Alexandria, Virginia and provides professional development, formation, leadership and advocacy in support of Catholic schools. Before taking his current post, Baxter was the superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He earned a master’s degree in education from the LMU School of Education. Baxter was interviewed via email by Joseph Wakelee-Lynch, editor of LMU Magazine.

How would you describe the impact on Catholic schools of lost in-person learning time from March to the end of the current school year?

There are two components to this crisis that I have seen since mid-March. One is over the short term, which can be seen as the time when schools stopped in-person instruction and the end of the school year in June 2020. The other is the long term, which is next school year and beyond.

The short term has been extremely hopeful —I have been amazed at the responsiveness and innovation exhibited by Catholic school principals and teachers across the country. They moved to remote instruction and learning extremely quickly and did so with enthusiasm and joy. We have solid anecdotal information from various parts of the country that demonstrates the efficiency and effectiveness of Catholic schools moving to remote instruction.

The long term is more concerning. The indeterminate nature of the pandemic makes planning extremely difficult. We do worry about those schools that serve a larger percentage of students from at risk populations. So, our focus at NCEA is to be intentional with our support and training for schools in the virtual space so that principals and teachers have access to the professional development necessary to be successful.

Do you think the impact is being felt similarly across the board, regardless of whether we’re talking about Catholic schools or public schools?

I would not want to get into a comparison because I know all schools are doing the best they can in extreme circumstances. But we have had some research on this, and our anecdotal data is reflective of it as well, that Catholic schools have responded to the shift to remote instruction in a very seamless fashion. We know that in several dioceses, parents have expressed satisfaction with the move and how it has been handled. Some dioceses have also shared that parents from other educational systems have expressed interest in transferring their children to the local Catholic school because of what they have heard about the work Catholic schools have done.

In higher education, there are some institutions with incredibly large endowments, such as Harvard, Stanford and Pomona College. Does the phenomenon of the haves and the have-nots exist in elementary and secondary private education?

To some degree, but a significant percentage of the 6,000 Catholic schools in the U.S. would not have an endowment at all. Those that do are usually the larger high schools or the ones run by religious orders. Catholic schools in the U.S. are fairly unique in the private school universe in that they serve middle- to low-income communities as part of their mission. So, the vast majority of Catholic schools are struggling though this crisis with grave concerns about financing programs.

We are very concerned about the long-term impact of the economic fallout from the lockdown.

Is there anything in the nature of Catholic and public schools, or the resources they can draw upon, that changes some of the responses to the crisis that will be made by those schools respectively?

Public schools tend to have more resources to provide because of the funding they receive from the state. But they also have teacher unions, which can have requirements that make quick adaptation to a new instructional model different. Catholic schools tend to be more limited in the funding resources, but the educators are more flexible with regard to the shift in approach.

I can only comment on this aspect from my insight and knowledge about Catholic schools, but I also see educators in Catholic schools really committing to a strong sense of community. I think this is first and foremost a function of our faith. But when each teacher knows each student in a school, that creates a solid connection that helps keep students and families committed to the overall mission of the school. Creating spiritual, social and personal connections on remote platforms is challenging, but it is made easier when that strong community foundation has been present.

Based on what you see yourself or what you hear from teachers in the field, how would you describe the impact on parents of the past three months of the crisis?

This has been a challenging time for parents. They are dealing with their own jobs shifting to at-home work or, even worse, being eliminated altogether. Add to that the stress of having to assist your children with their learning and it presents some great difficulties. I think the hardest part about the COVID-19 crisis is the uncertain time frame. If people knew they had to work and live remotely for a period of time, they could prepare themselves and grit through it. The challenge is having the end date indeterminate, which I think just adds to the pressure on parents.

As chief innovation officer, how were you thinking about the future of Catholic education before the COVID-19 crisis and how has that changed since the onset of online, at-home instruction?

It has shifted for me, but there are also some things I was working on that I think will be helpful as we look to deliver professional development and training in a virtual environment. First, the shift: One big area of focus for me over the past eight months or so has been working on a Catholic micro-school* model. This work was designed to address the enrollment challenge at many Catholic schools by providing a model that would lead to great faith and academic outcomes, while also creating a financially sustainable school. The plan was to have that model ready for our NCEA convention in Baltimore in mid-April and launch it in several schools this August. That is obviously on the shelf for the time being as we do more work on remote instruction and supporting schools in their efforts in that area. But it will still be a relevant model once we get on the other side of the virus.

One item I was focused on prior to the pandemic was the creation of professional learning networks, often called PLNs, for Catholic schools. The intent was to create virtual networks for different classes of Catholic school educators so they could collaborate and problem-solve with colleagues from all parts of the U.S. The intent is for them to be small (five to 10 individuals) and that they focus on one area of Catholic school education (principals, kindergarten teachers, high school biology teachers, etc.). Our vision over the long term is that we could have hundreds of these across the country and it would help build community, as well as provide informal professional development opportunities for Catholic school educators. That area of focus is obviously looking very relevant to where we see our work going over the next 12–18 months, which is great.

[Micro-schools are difficult to define but common basic characteristics usually include very small student populations — sometimes no larger than 150 students — use of instructional technology, and an emphasis on personalized instruction.—The Editor]

A crisis often reveals holes in the fabric, so to speak. Has the COVID-19 crisis shed light on problem areas in U.S. elementary and secondary education that you think will no longer be ignored?

Kristin Dixon, the superintendent of Catholic schools in Seattle, said something at the start of this crisis that has stayed with me —she said she is deciding not to focus on what might be dying through this ordeal but rather what is trying to be born. I think there are challenges that have surfaced with the rapid shift to remote learning but I also think we have seen great examples of resilience, creativity and a willingness to take risks. An anecdotal example that I have heard from multiple principals and superintendents across the country is of the teacher who has been resistant to trying new technology in the classroom for years being compelled to jump into the deep end of the pool and thriving after having done so. There are definitely holes and challenges but I think the positive response from educators has left me feeling much more inspired than discouraged.

Are there lessons being learned, or conclusions being drawn, after experiencing these conditions for two or three months that are helping school administrators to begin planning for a return to school next September?

As I said earlier, we had to cancel our in-person convention that was scheduled to take place in Baltimore in mid-April. That was an unfortunate decision, but once that decision was made we decided to offer a virtual convention. In about three weeks, NCEA put together 15 live sessions and about 25 recorded sessions and hoped we would generate some interest. Prior to the launch of registration, we were realistic with our expectations because we knew that Catholic educators had been on Zoom since the start of the crisis, and we didn’t know if they would want to spend their spring break on the computer learning online.

We opened registration and the response was overwhelming. We ended up having over 7,000 people register and take part in NCEA Virtual 2020, and the evaluations and feedback were overwhelmingly positive.

I took two key lessons away from that experience that inform how I am thinking about the upcoming school year. First, there is a great demand out there from Catholic school educators for training and support in these times. We had sessions on remote teaching, of course, but we also had sessions on marketing and finance and how to ensure faith formation remains the focus during this time. So, there is demand for high-quality professional development. The second key lesson was that Catholic school educators are willing to engage online to learn.

Those two lessons are helping to shape our approach to professional development and support for Catholic schools over the next 12 months, which is exciting and engaging work.

Do you foresee an increased use of online tools to complement classroom learning?

I think we have definitely crossed a threshold for many teachers and students. I do think nothing compares to instruction in person, and that will of course remain the norm for schools once the severity of the virus passes. But I heard a principal from a school in the Northeast comment that a student said to him, “I guess we will never have another snow day.”

I think the flexibility of offering things online will be a complement to what is being done in the classroom, and this forced transition has compelled educators to think more deeply about how to do it effectively. While in-person education will remain the dominant form of schooling, how technology can supplement that learning will be an area to stay focused on.

Do you expect Catholic elementary and secondary schools to take a devastating financial hit in the short term, including closures? And will the hardest hit be those with the fewest resources, the have-nots?

This is a major concern, although not as much in the short term. Many Catholic schools were able to apply and qualify to receive Paycheck Protection Program funds through the Small Business Administration. That support was crucial in allowing them to maintain their faculty and staff in the short term. There are some concerns about immediate school closures, but we aren’t seeing many that can be directly tied to COVID-19 for this current year. The ones that are most likely to be impacted are those that are already under-enrolled or are suffering from less than adequate resources.

If there are stable schools that will be compelled to close due to the pandemic, NCEA is creating a plan to re-start those schools in a year with the support of the dioceses. Our expectation is that if the school was stable prior to the pandemic and primarily lost enrollment due to the impact of the coronavirus, they will be prime candidates to reopen once the worst of the virus is behind us. With a strategic visioning plan for the school, our expectation is that a school will be able to re-open in time.

We are very concerned about the long-term impact of the economic fallout from the lockdown. That may have implication for years to come as we hear more about certain industries (restaurants, service sectors, in-person retail) that may never come back, or if they do only after several years. That impact will affect all aspects of American life, and Catholic schools will be no different. So, that long-term concern is very much something that NCEA is worried about and working toward addressing over time.

Catholic schools were and remain a primary vehicle for the transmission, or teaching, of Catholic social values, such as the importance of the individual created in God’s image and the importance of the common good. Do you see anything in the current crisis that makes you believe we have an opportunity, in Catholic schools, along with the challenges to further those teachings?

I think there are many lessons to be learned from the challenges we are experiencing. The most evident one is the dignity of all human life. It is disheartening to hear some express the view that the elderly and the infirm shouldn’t be prioritized so that the economy doesn’t suffer any more than necessary. That flies in the face of Catholic social teaching, which addresses the dignity of each human life. Catholic schools have an opportunity to teach students this fundamental concept of our faith and how difficult decisions should be made through a moral lens.

I also believe that our relationships and connections with each other are such primal needs and being separated from our family and friends puts strain on those aspects of what makes us human. Not being able to attend Mass and participate in parish life is a significant loss for people of faith. I think the lesson we learn from the experience is that community is built through such relationships and, although it is more difficult, we need to strive to maintain them through this crisis by reaching out to those in need and connecting via phone or video conference.