By Kristina Rex

BOSTON (CBS) – At South Boston Catholic Academy, five-year-olds run around the playground clad in miniature masks. They’ve been back at school for more than two weeks now, learning in person five days a week, socially distanced, in masks.

“The students have worn masks like it’s something they’ve worn all the time,” said Dr. HelenAnn Civian, the school’s principal of three years.

South Boston Catholic Academy is one of 99 private, Catholic schools returning for some form of full in-person learning in the midst of a global pandemic. It has about 20 new students, many transfers from Boston Public Schools, and a wait-list.

“When the pandemic first hit, a lot of people got laid off, we took a big hit on enrollment,” Thomas W. Carroll, Superintendent of Schools for the Archdiocese of Boston, told WBZ.

Early in summer 2020, the Archdiocese provided guidance to its 99 schools: open for full in-person learning. “Nobody questioned whether we should, the question was how do we go about it?” Carroll said.

Classroom at St. Augustine School in Andover (WBZ-TV)

At a time when Catholic schools are considered a dying breed, the decision to go back full time has led to a surge in enrollment. According to national data, urban Catholic schools nationwide have seen a 24 percent decrease in enrollment over the last decade.

In the two months since July 15, the Archdiocese of Boston has seen a nearly 15 percent increase in enrollment, with almost 4,000 new students joining Catholic schools.

“All of our schools are welcoming children back into the building, and most of the public schools aren’t even open yet,” Carroll said. He said schools’ phones were “ringing off the hook” once the state announced public school starts would be delayed until September 16, and even more so once schools began to announce they would start the 2020-2021 school year remotely.

For example, St. Agnes School in Arlington has 142 new students, most of whom are public school transfers. St. Augustine School in Andover has 70 new students, including Chase and Austin Gibson. “We’re fortunate we’re in the positions where [switching schools] was an option for us,” Ben Gibson said. He and his wife Erin are both school teachers themselves, and said they felt their kids were getting behind with remote learning. “I couldn’t [teach them] during the day,” Erin said. “I had to do it on weekends to fill in the gaps or we were doing it over the summer. So it just wasn’t working for us.”

The Gibsons don’t know if the switch to St. Augustine School will be a temporary fix or a permanent switch, but they are grateful to have their kids in school 30 hours a week.

At St. Augustine School, as well as at many elementary schools in the Archdiocese, students are learning in a synchronous model. Teachers are live streamed, interacting with students who are learning remotely – by family choice – while teaching kids in the classroom as well.

St. Augustine Principal Mark Daley calls it “room and zoom.” Arlington Catholic High School has a similar model, but hybrid – half of the students are at home, online for a full week while the other half are in school. The next week, they switch. “Our number one goal has been to get kids back in the building in as safe an environment as possible,” Vice Principal Steve Barrett said. “High school comes once. There’s unfortunately no chance to do it a second time.”

But what about the money? Private, Catholic schools cost thousands of dollars a year, and education experts have warned the pandemic could widen the education gap between wealthy and poor students. “We welcome anybody who wants to give us money for scholarships,” Superintendent Carroll told WBZ. “We already spend $8 million a year making sure that people of all walks of life can afford to go to our schools.”

The Archdiocese’s decision to encourage in person instruction has garnered criticism online, too. Superintendent Carroll’s tweets are met with a mix of praise and vitriol. In response to a tweet celebrating the first day of school, he received responses like, “Best wishes to you educators whose lives are at risk for your bad decision.”

So far, roughly two weeks into school, some students in three diocesan schools are temporarily learning remotely: St. Bridget in Framingham, St. Anthony in Everett, and Lawrence Catholic Academy in Lawrence. These three schools are learning remotely because the cities in which they are located are considered COVID-19 “red zones.”

“They will return to fully in-person when and if the Red Zone designation changes if community COVID transmission levels go down,” Carroll explained.

Kristina Rex

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