Catholic Schools Held Steady During Height of COVID, Relying on Faith and Fundamentals

There is a lot of work ahead for schools, educators say, acknowledging they stayed strong academically through pandemic but still face other related challenges, including emotional toll on students and need to reinforce learning.

The Catholic-school educational model contributed to keeping students on track academically during the pandemic.
The Catholic-school educational model contributed to keeping students on track academically during the pandemic. (photo: Shutterstock)

WEST ST. PAUL, Minn. — The students fifth-grade teacher Kathy Wilcox taught at St. Joseph’s Catholic School in West St. Paul, Minnesota, during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic are now in eighth grade, and she is proud of how they emerged academically from the difficult period of online learning.

“As a teacher, you have goals, and it was really important to us that our students didn’t lose any of those goals even though it was a horrific time,” she told the Register.

Results from an assessment known as the “Nation’s Report Card” released by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) this past week show that U.S. Catholic-school fourth- and eighth-graders didn’t lose significant academic ground during the pandemic and outperformed public schools in all categories.

Data from the biennial “National Assessment of Educational Progress” (NAEP) showed that Catholic-school students’ reading scores remained consistent with 2019 scores. Fourth-grade math scores showed no change, but eighth-grade Catholic school math scores declined by five points on a 500-point scale.

The assessment tests what students know and can do using a common measure of student achievement and the first student-level achievement data for all 50 states, the District of Columbia, the Department of Defense Schools, Puerto Rico and 26 large urban districts that volunteered to participate in the assessment, according to an NCES statement. Aside from Catholic schools, other private schools did not meet the minimum standard of responses to be included in the 2022 assessment, according to the NCES.

While highlighting how the Catholic-school educational model contributed to keeping students on track academically during the pandemic, Catholic education leaders acknowledged the need to reinforce concepts lost, especially in subjects such as math. Along with the positive measure of academic performance, they talked about continuing emotional, social and other effects the pandemic has had on children.

One reason for Catholic schools’ success was their early transitioning to distance learning and also being the first to return to safe in-person learning, said Lincoln Snyder, executive director and CEO of the Leesburg, Virginia-based National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA), which provides professional development, formation, leadership and advocacy to Catholic schools.

Overall, the results “confirm the broader trend that all students suffered during COVID,” he told the Register. “We know that no school system was untouched by the effects of the pandemic and the inability to run school as we have run it previously in person, but I think that all these studies confirm that the Catholic schools did an excellent job mitigating the effects of COVID for our students.”

Fundamental Differences

The Catholic-school model is fundamentally different because it’s about witness and not just teaching skills or preparing students for the workplace, Snyder said. “We really are about forming servant leaders for Christ, and I think that, most importantly, our kids are surrounded by teachers and educators that model that for them,” he said. “One of the biggest predictors of learning is a child having a teacher that they know is invested in them; and so it’s not just about what we’re teaching, but why we’re teaching it and how we teach it.”

Catholic schools benefit from families who are often more committed both by finances and time and because they and the school have a sense of mission, according to Mary Pat Donohue, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Catholic Education. They also benefit from subsidiarity, as authority that makes decisions is closer to the child than in public schools.

“We see education as incarnational: It’s a reality that happens in person; it’s relational; it’s built on the relation of the teacher and the students, which can’t fully be conducted in a virtual environment,” she told the Register.

The number of disruptions that all students experienced contributed to learning loss, Donohue acknowledged.

“It’s not unexpected to see this loss of learning that has taken place; especially for little children, education is very cumulative; it’s constantly building on itself,” she said. “And so these kinds of disruptions and interruptions, it’s not a surprise. There were certainly places in this country where public-school systems remained not on campus and not in person for very extended periods of time.”

Math Problems

Math scores did not improve in any state or large urban district, according to the NCES.

“Eighth grade is a pivotal moment in students’ mathematics education, as they develop key mathematics skills for further learning and potential careers in mathematics and science,” said Daniel McGrath, acting as NCES associate commissioner for assessment, in a news release. “If left unaddressed, this could alter the trajectories and life opportunities of a whole cohort of young people, potentially reducing their abilities to pursue rewarding and productive careers in mathematics, science, and technology.”

Students’ time out of class during the lockdowns and the cumulative and instructor-dependent nature of math, especially by eighth grade, are reasons eighth-grader’s math scores declined.

“We’re not surprised by the fact that our eighth-graders, despite heroic heavy lifting by our teachers, did lose a little bit of ground during the pandemic,” Snyder said. “It was inevitable because of the time that they were out of class.”

Math is challenging for many teachers to teach online because it has both conceptual and procedural dimensions, Wilcox explained. While she can teach the procedural aspect of how to do a math problem, conveying what it means — such as the fact that a fraction is part of a whole — is more difficult online. It’s also harder for algebra students to go back and forth online on problems, as they may do in person, she said.

Even if they were getting good instruction, some students suffered — and still suffer — from anxiety, Wilcox said, recalling the last day of the spring 2020 school year when one student shared what he was most thankful for was that he didn’t die during the lockdown.

“My heart just absolutely sank and stopped,” she said, “that here this 10-year-old was just so grateful that he didn’t die. And at that moment I realized just how scared these kids were.”

She added, “I know there are not enough counselors in the world today for the kids, that there are more students needing counseling than there ever have been. The anxiety in the students: We see more anxiety … where they don’t want to come to school; there’s more than we’ve ever seen.”

Wilcox tried to assuage students’ fears by praying and speaking often about Christ the Good Shepherd and encouraging them to trust the Lord.

Catholic schools mitigated students’ anxiety through their focus of drawing them closer to Christ, Donohue underscored.

“We cannot forget how difficult the pandemic-response measures were for the mental and emotional well-being of our kids. And the first principle for education, in order for a child to learn, he must feel safe; he must feel loved. Children benefit greatly from the sense of routine. It’s almost amazing that they didn’t do worse, in some ways, because of the emotional toll,” she said.

Helping Students Catch Up

When dealing with the impact of the COVID pandemic, there is a lot of work ahead for schools, educators told the Register.

Wilcox said her current class of fifth-graders, who were in second and third grade during the lockdown, lack a firm grasp on basic math “facts,” including addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, because they didn’t get to practice them in class with peers. She finds she needs to take more time to reinforce important material.

Schools need to accelerate learning out of the pandemic, not just focusing on remediation but on reinforcing key concepts, Snyder said. “Time is of the essence,” he said. “It’s incumbent on us the educators to know what kids have to learn to master the most critical concepts for the year, to then move on to the next level of mathematics, for example.”

Some schools face challenges in helping students catch up. The NAEP data shows that Catholic schools are near the top in learning outcomes for students receiving free and reduced-price lunch, according to an NCEA press release.

The report also reflected the good news of how Catholic schools are a beacon for urban students, according to an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal.

“The report is good news for what has been until now a weary sector. The pandemic strained Catholic schools, particularly urban ones that serve the neediest, but pastors, principals and diocesan leaders pressed forward to serve communities. That revitalization was spurred by parents who saw how Catholic schools responded to the pandemic and who drove the first nationwide Catholic-school enrollment increase in two decades,” wrote Kathleen Porter-Magee, superintendent of Partnership Schools.

“As public-school enrollment plummeted, Catholic-school enrollment rose by about 4% between 2020-21 and 2021-22, increasing in every region of the country, even where the overall population of school-age children declined. Those trying to undercut the Catholic-school success story dismiss the results as merely the high performance of elite private schools. But K-8 Catholic schools are the only private elementary schools in America that serve the urban poor at scale.” Porter-McGee has discussed Catholic schools’ positive reliance on phonics, too. And the Register has covered enrollment gains.

But finding resources for math tutoring and other staff needed to give students extra attention may be challenging for less affluent schools, according to the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

Whatever their age, helping children catch up must take into account the child’s ability to take in information, Donohue said, adding that some children may lag behind for the rest of their academic career because of pandemic disruptions.

“It’s not like we can just give them an intense summer and call it a day,” she said. “It’s going to require a lot of willingness on the part of especially high-school teachers to alter, to try to meet individual needs, because we’re going to have to think a little more creatively about meeting needs of kids at various places.”

‘God Has a Plan’

Wilcox said she’s hopeful for her students, as “it really seems like our students are being really successful.”

A big part of that is the Catholic schools’ dimension of faith and trusting in God, Wilcox said.

“God has a plan, and his plan is always good — and that is what we teach these kids,” she said. “As hard as it may be to trust in it and believe in it, he is there, and we are not alone, and he is guiding us.”

‘Rowing Team’

The Commonly Misunderstood Common Good

“By common good is to be understood ‘the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.’” (CCC 1906)