Some Catholic dioceses are counting on on-line faculties within the face of falling enrollment numbers

(RNS) – Catholic schools across the country have worked hard over the past school year to keep their doors open, although many public schools have remained closed.

But now that the coronavirus pandemic is on the wane and nearly all schools return to face-to-face classes this fall, a dozen Catholic dioceses in the U.S. are opening permanent online schools.

The growth in online learning could be among the more unexpected changes emerging from the pandemic. While most students return to their normal classrooms, some never return. An NPR / Ipsos poll in March found that nearly a third of U.S. parents said they would likely stick with distance learning indefinitely.

Now a new range of options, including religious schools, will suit them.

Catholic dioceses such as Raleigh Diocese, which comprises the eastern half of North Carolina, are experimenting with the model.

In addition to its 31 sports schools, the diocese will open a permanent online school for grades K-8 through a partnership with Catholic Virtual, an accredited for-profit organization founded 10 years ago to expand and enrich the curriculum for Catholic schools .

Classes are delivered by Catholic teachers from across the country in mostly recorded lectures with online curriculum materials and discussion forums. Students can log in at any time of the day or night. Students don’t even need a laptop; they can use a tablet.

“That way, we can be adaptable to meet all of our students’ needs,” said Lytia Reese, Raleigh Diocese headmistress, who collects tuition ($ 6,050 per year for elementary school classes) and other administrative tasks for the online school. “There are some students who are successful in a virtual environment, so we wanted to make this option available to the students.”

Experimenting with online schools can be a product of necessity.

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Catholic schools saw enrollment fall 6.4% at the start of the 2020-2021 school year, the largest drop in a year in 50 years, according to the National Catholic Education Association. Catholic elementary schools bore the brunt of the decline.

Photo by Annie Spratt / Unsplash / Creative Commons

There are about 1.6 million Catholic students in the United States today, compared to more than 5 million in the 1960s. The Catholic proportion of the US population is also declining. According to a 2019 study by the Pew Research Center, Catholics make up 20% of the U.S. population, up from 24% in 2007.

At the same time, there are a variety of educational opportunities – including charter schools and home-schooling networks – that may attract students who would previously have attended Catholic schools.

Kevin Fields’ two children attended St. Mary Magdalene Catholic School in Apex, North Carolina. But over the past year, Fields liked the flexibility of online learning, which allowed him to better coordinate additional tutoring for his two children with special learning needs.

“The final decision to keep them out is so that we can add tutoring to their education and give them a more flexible schedule to get the help they need,” he said.

In autumn Vanessa (14) and Alex (10) will visit the new virtual school of the Diocese of Raleigh. Fields and his wife, who run a small bookstore, both work from home.

Robert Birdsell, president of Catholic Virtual, said interest in the company had increased.

It recently worked with 10 dioceses for new online schools starting this fall. Another 15 discuss the idea. The lessons are determined by the diocese and are usually comparable to lessons at a Catholic school.

“The pandemic has accelerated the adoption and adoption of online learning,” Birdsell said. “It’s not right for everyone. But I believe the choice is the best outcome and parents should be able to choose. “

Catholic Virtual began as a way to improve the curriculum in smaller Catholic schools by providing advanced internship and other classes to Catholic schools that do not offer a full menu of personal course options. (The Jesuit High School Network has a similar online service called Arrupe Virtual.)

Most students in Catholic virtual schools live within the geographic boundaries of the partner diocese, but a minority of students may be from outside the region.

Birdsell said Catholic Virtual does not want to compete with brick and mortar schools, so it cooperates with dioceses instead.

“Dioceses and schools know their communities and their needs,” Birdsell said. “We can bring the technology, the platform and the teaching design that they don’t have.”

The Diocese of Brooklyn opened St. Thomas Aquinas Distance Learning School in 2020 with around 2,000 K-8 students – most of whom were banned from inpatient schools because of the pandemic.

This fall, a smaller school with 200-300 students will become a permanent online academy working with Catholic Virtual.

Ted Havelka, director of school enrollment management and financial assistance for Diocese of Brooklyn’s K-8 schools, said he hoped the school could attract others unwilling to return to face-to-face tuition in New York City.

“I am optimistic that this will bring new families to the Catholic school,” said Havelka. “We have an outreach campaign to be the online solution for them that is not offered elsewhere, and with Catholic values, with Catholic teachings.”

The Digiuseppi siblings Charlie, 11, from left, Anthony 14, and Abagail, 8;  Go to school practically from home in Fort Pierce, Florida.  Photo courtesy of Lola Digiuseppi

The Digiuseppi siblings, from left, Charlie, 11; Anthony, 14; and Abagail, 8, are visiting the school virtually from their home in Fort Pierce, Florida. Photo courtesy of Lola Digiuseppi

Lola Digiuseppi, a mother from Fort Pierce, Florida, enrolled all three of her children in a Catholic virtual school. The proximity to her children is worth it to her.

“You are free to spend more time with your children,” she said. “You are in no hurry to put them on and prepare lunch. You have more time with your family. “

The family has not attended church since the pandemic began. But she is confident that the children will still be raised in the faith through her school. Convenience sold it, she said. “I wish I had grown up there.”

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