The following blog was contributed by John Reyes, Ed.D., executive director of operational vitality at the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) in Arlington, VA.
“Over time, even an academically rigorous school with strong Catholic identity will not survive without operational vitality.” – National Standards and Benchmarks for Effective Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools, 2020
While much attention has been drawn to the academic and spiritual response of Catholic schools to the pandemic – are you tired of Zoom yet? – there is more we can and ought to learn about the operational response from Catholic schools. Catholic schools, while operating first and foremost as an apostolate of the Church and in service of the Great Commission, also happen to be businesses – “temporal organizations” with which school leaders are charged to operate in the four key areas of finances, human resources/personnel, facilities and institutional advancement.
In a survey we conducted with our membership and led by Annie Smith, our director of research and data management, we sought to gather insight on school and diocesan responses to the pandemic. (You can view a summary of the data set here.)
After analyzing an advance copy of the data with participants at our Catholic Leadership Summit last week, I pulled out a few key findings that helped to illustrate how Catholic school leaders “ran towards the danger” in responding to the pandemic:
- The vast majority of Catholic schools across the nation are operating with at least part-time in-person instruction, with no major outbreaks or transmission of COVID-19 being reported. Only 8% of school leaders who responded were operating completely virtually, with the vast majority of those school leaders in California (and in Los Angeles’s 70,000+ student Catholic school system, the first wave of schools were granted waivers and opened in-person instruction to early elementary students this week). The lack of major outbreaks or transmission in Catholic schools substantiates prior nationwide research suggesting that schools, particularly elementary schools, pose minimal risk in terms of the spread of the disease.
- Early infusions of cash from the state and federal level to support schools and businesses were crucial in addressing the uncertain financial position brought about by the pandemic. 91% of diocesan leaders and 78% of school leaders reported utilizing state and federal funding as a strategy to bolster finances over the last seven months. Conversely, only 37% of school leaders reported using savings to cover operating deficits; depending on the already fragile nature of school budgets and lack of clarity around future funding support for schools at the state and federal level, we may start to see many more schools touch “rainy-day funds.”
- Leaders saw the use of technology as the most lasting change to “business-as-usual.” Despite problems with technology procurement, including delays and cost, 83% of diocesan leaders and 71% of school leaders said that improving or strengthening educational technology as a positive aspect of the shift in operations due to COVID-19. Sixty percent of school and diocesan leaders also stated that they intended to make technology-related changes permanent, even after the pandemic.
Our findings also raised some important questions and considerations, particularly as it relates to how we best move forward:
- How will schools respond to the challenge of retention? One crucial piece of data that the survey was less than definitive on was the impact of the pandemic on school or diocesan Catholic school enrollment. While some schools and dioceses saw notable and even double-digit percentage point increases in enrollment, there were plenty of enrollment declines that mirrored or exceeded similar declines during the late 2000s. We are convinced, probably now more than ever, that offering in-person instruction matters greatly to parents – but how can school leaders experiencing enrollment growth sustain their pandemic-related boosts, particularly as more public and charter schools begin to return to in-person instruction?
- What will staffing in schools and dioceses look like going forward? Salaries and benefits comprise the majority of most school operating budgets, yet in the midst of severe economic downturn, a mere 37% of schools reduced staff to address their uncertain financial position. Only “increasing advancement events” ranked lower in terms of strategies used by school leaders. We know that staffing has been an operational concern in Catholic schools for quite some time now – our own data at NCEA tells us that despite a two-thirds drop in enrollment from 1960 to 2017, staffing levels have remained exactly the same (!) – but could this be the moment where the levee finally breaks?
- How are leaders choosing to make temporary strategies permanent? At the Catholic Leadership Summit last week, many diocesan leaders analyzing an advance copy of the data noted that leaders considered the majority of the new strategies implemented in the areas of enrollment, finance, marketing, staffing and advancement as temporary. It’s hard to tell whether respondents are “waiting things out” to see whether those temporary strategies are worth maintaining going forward, or if there is full intent to return back to business as usual in those areas once a sense of relative normalcy is restored. That said, we must see crisis as an opportunity for innovation and as an opportunity for things to be “born anew” – could there be strategies and tactics that, instead of being bound to the graveyard of reactive and short-term change, shine a path for a new chapter of vitality and vibrancy for Catholic schools?
We invite you to look at the data for yourself – let us know what resonates with you, what aligns with your experiences, what you’d like to learn more about. A commitment to challenging our preconceived notions, testing our presumptions and asking questions only serves to strengthen and not undermine the shared work we do in leading and sustaining vibrant Catholic schools.