DANBURY—In September, St. Joseph School was inundated with parents who wanted to enroll their children—so many that the Catholic school had to add classes.
Unlike Danbury Public Schools, St. Joseph’s was open in-person, a major draw for families, who did not want their children on distance learning.
“Our phones were ringing off the hook for those young ones,” said Louis Howe, principal at St. Joseph’s, a K-8 school that has had about 30 new students join since September. “Those young ones need to be in school. It’s tough for them to be on a computer.”
Interest has heightened locally and nationally in Catholic schools, which in recent years have struggled and even combined or closed due to enrollment declines and budgetary challenges.
“Our hope is that as families have experienced Catholic school education that they will see the value of it and that they will continue to send their students,” said Steven Cheeseman, superintendent of schools in the Dioceses of Bridgeport.
Their small size has allowed most Catholic schools in Fairfield County to do what many public schools have not during the coronavirus pandemic—open five days a week for all students who want to be there.
Many public schools have been on the hybrid model for at least part of the academic year and have had to temporarily close due to staff shortages or COVID cases. Danbury was on full distance learning until mid-January.
Only two Catholic high schools in the Bridgeport dioceses are on a hybrid model, while all other schools are open fully in-person, Cheeseman said.
Similarly, public schools faced a drop in kindergarten enrollment, although Cheeseman said Catholic schools have seen a rise in kindergartners.
Catholic schools have historically seen pre-kindergarten as their “bread and butter,” Howe said.
“We saw the reverse,” he said. “Our K-8 is carrying our pre-K.”
St. Joseph’s is down about 20 pre-kindergartners from 45 students last school year.
Parents with young children have been concerned that preschoolers wouldn’t be good at wearing masks and did not want to worry about remote learning if necessary, Howe said.
“Some of these parents perhaps didn’t realize we’d be going this long without having to shut the school down,” he said.
He expects more pre-kindergartners could enroll. Already, one preschooler is supposed to start next week, he said.
“Parents are starting to realize we’ve got protocols in place,” Howe said. “We’re staying open and our preschool is up and running.”
Cheeseman said he has seen the same across the dioceses.
Filling the building
Without the preschool decline, Howe expects St. Joseph’s would have more students than last academic year, when 221were enrolled.
St. Joseph’s had 187 students enrolled before Labor Day, but reached more than 200 students by the end of the first week of school, Howe said. As of February, there are 215 students. There is a waitlist for this year and next year.
The school added another kindergarten and second grade class. This is the first time in a while that the school has had two classes for one grade, he said.
“It’s been a blessing,” Howe said.
“These families are seeing there is a difference of remote learning and in-school learning,” Howe said.
Over 20 families, largely in K-8, are on the waitlist for next year. Class sizes are 20 to 21 students on average, but cannot be increased at the moment due to social distancing guidelines, Howe said.
“I’m not willing to crunch desks together just to get more [students] in,” he said. “I’m not going to sacrifice safety for money.”
But he hopes restrictions could be eased next year, allowing more students to enroll. The building could hold between 400 to 600 students, he said.
“We’ll make this school full again,” Howe said. “That’s my mission, and I think we’re well on the way to achieving that.”
But the pandemic did hurt schools like St. Joseph Catholic Academy in Brookfield. After years of enrollment decline and financial challenges, that school closed permanently
at the end of last academic year.
The pandemic hurt schools’ ability to raise money, which was a contributing factor in closing the academy, Cheeseman said.
The National Catholic Education Association estimates COVID played a factor in closing 107 Catholic schools across the country, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Catholic schools have a big advantage—their small size.
There are more than 7,000 students spread out between the Bridgeport diocese’s 25 elementary and high schools.Comparatively, Bridgeport has about 20,000 students, Danbury has around 12,000, Norwalk has about 11,500, Stamford has around 16,000 and Greenwich has roughly 9,000.
“We’re much smaller and more nimble,” Cheeseman said.
Schools range in size, with about 150 students at the smallest elementary school and around 375 elementary children at the largest, he said. The high schools range from 400 to 800 students.
“It’s easier to isolate the students in the classroom and limit movement and easier to social distance because we have a smaller school, unlike our public school friends that have thousands of students to deal with,” Howe said.
All but about eight St. Joseph’s students opted to be in-person, he said.
Parent Megan Cerullo said her children were “elated” to return to St. Joseph’s.
Students mainly stay in the classroom, where they eat lunch, and are not permitted to leave their hallways, Howe said. Each hallway has its own bathroom and teachers’ lounge.
“Everything is pretty much contained in the classroom,” Howe said.
This means quarantines are generally limited to one class, but even those have been rare, he said. Before Christmas, St. Joseph’s only quarantined one class. There have been a few COVID cases since then, he said.
“We’ve been very fortunate,” Howe said.
The average distance between desks is just over five feet at St. Josephs, Howe said. Across the diocese, desks are between four and a half to six feet apart, Cheeseman said.
Just like the public schools, it has been rare for the virus to spread within the Catholic school buildings. The schools have found only one possible instance, Cheeseman said.
Howe said families have been helping in following precautions, including students wearing their masks like it’s “second nature.”
“I believe really wholeheartedly that the reason we’re still open is: not only do we have a solid plan, but we also have the cooperation of our community,” Howe said.
For parents that do not want to send their children to school, the dioceses has created an online academy.
‘High hopes’ for future
“We’re seeing an increased enrollment for a reason,” she said. “I do believe a faith-based education is something that parents want for their children.”
She expects this will be a boost for Catholic schools beyond the pandemic.
“The challenge is getting them [families] in the doors,” Cerullo said. “Once they’re in the doors, we can show them everything we have to offer and how we stand apart from other schools.”
Ensuring the families feel like part of the community will be key to getting them to stay, Howe said.
“Once that happens, they’re not going to want to leave,” he said.
Cheeseman said he held a Zoom call with 22 families who moved this year from the public to Catholic school.
“Every one of them said, ‘I wish we would have done this sooner,’” Cheeseman said. “If that’s an indication, then I have high hopes for what the future can bring.”
By Julia Perkins I Danbury News Times