By making an idol of physical security, Catholic schools are failing

In the past two years, our company has created an idol from physical health and safety, protecting them at all costs. But Jesus himself tells us: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both body and soul in hell” (Matthew 10:28). He reminds us that there are things much worse than illness and physical separation from God.

Unfortunately, many of our Catholic schools have not been immune to societal idolatry, as demonstrated by the strict Covid policies in many schools, and it will destroy the faith of our Catholic schoolchildren if we do not let’s not remedy the situation.

Recently there have been news showing that Catholic education is growing again, touting Catholic schools across the country as setting an example throughout the pandemic in remaining open and serving families. Yes, it’s true. When public schools were closed, diocesan schools across the country managed to implement at least one hybrid learning model. As a result, families are now enrolling in Catholic schools as an alternative to public schools.

What these plays fail to examine, however, is that now, in the second full school year during the pandemic, the environment in Catholic schools has not changed significantly. They are still operating this year using the protocols that were apparently needed to reopen during the height of the pandemic. Policy makers have not reassessed the current situation we find ourselves in, opting instead to continue the same restrictive policies from September 2020.

To illustrate, here are some of the protocols in place at schools in the Archdiocese of New York and what it looks like on a practical basis for our children. (These are real experiences of families in schools in the Archdiocese of New York, but I believe the environment in other major dioceses in the city is similar.)

Children must remain in their class cohort at all times. A fifth grader should always be with the other fifth graders, and a second grader should always be with the other second graders. So, at recess, this means the cohorts should be separated and each class is assigned a section in which to play for the day; they cannot play in another section assigned to another grade. It also means that a child who has siblings or friends in different cohorts at recess at the same time may not socialize or interact with them.

Using cohorts in buildings has other effects. Extracurriculars cannot be accommodated as they are generally of mixed age groups which would be considered unsafe together in one environment. Morning or afternoon prayers are not prayed together in community, but rather with each cohort in their own classrooms while teleconferencing with the rest of the school.

Masking in school buildings is mandatory in New York State, which has led to unreasonable lunchtime situations. Some schools have opted to spread children six feet apart at tables and enforce a “quiet lunch” while masks are removed. There is no conversation while eating. Other schools have opted to keep children seated at their desks and follow a staggered meal schedule, allowing students in every other row to eat while the other half of the children wait their turn to unmask and eat .

Masking outdoors during gym or recess was implemented arbitrarily and inconsistently in different schools in the archdiocese. The folly of such policies is obvious. Additionally, there have been instances where a teacher has been outed while enforcing the masking among the students.

In addition to using masking and cohorts, schools must maintain a three-foot separation from students at all times. This means younger students, who would normally learn sitting at group tables or on a carpet together, must sit at their own desks at all times. This distancing rule has also led to the fact that while the school does indeed continue to attend Mass, which some have not, the entire school population will not attend Mass together.

Of course, the children go to mass with their families on Sundays, sitting side by side with strangers. But we cannot bring the whole school together in the church at the same time to celebrate mass in community. In addition, parents are not allowed to attend school masses with their children. Before Covid, it was common practice for many parents to attend school mass. In fact, now parents are no longer allowed to enter school buildings at any time for any reason. Should a parent be offered the rare opportunity to volunteer in the building, they must present an immunization record to do so.

When parents question these policies, the common refrain is that archdiocesan policymakers are doing their best to keep everyone safe. Parents have repeatedly been told that administrators are most proud of the fact that the spread of Covid in our schools has been near zero. (See Superintendent Deegan letter of January 18, 2022, Where This article in which he talks about limited spread in schools.) But what does safe mean? Does it only apply to physical security?

I claim that our children are do not sure. These protocols have a price, and the price is their social, emotional andmost tragicallyspiritual well-being. Any discerning adult can see it. Our children have borne the brunt of the burden when it comes to Covid. They have had to endure what most adults have not endured, and they know it is done by those responsible for their protection.

When a six-year-old can question the logic of protocols, we have lost all credibility. When an eight-year-old cannot be hugged by a teacher on a particularly difficult day, we have hurt our children tremendously. If their social health mattered, they wouldn’t have to separate themselves from other members of the community. They could participate in extracurricular activities, have school functions and be without a mask.

If their emotional health mattered, the Archdiocese would not be implementing policies that would effectively eliminate any sense of community and partnership between parents, their children, and schools. Considering that Catholics maintain that parents are the first educators of their own children, this is beyond reason.

More seriously, our children are learning that the adults responsible for making these decisions do not take their spiritual health seriously.. If spiritual life mattered, younger students would not be excluded from celebrating Mass, and an entire school would not watch Mass via teleconference due to the perceived threat of exposure to disease. When older students see that adults are more interested in following arbitrary rules under the guise of physical protection health, rather than emphasizing the importance of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, they learn that the Mass is not important. It is through actions like this that our children learn mediocrity in their spiritual lives, a complacency that leads to the eventual death of faith.

When some decision makers wear clerics or religious garb, the harm to children is compounded. This is a lesson Catholics should have learned long ago: when those who represent God fail to nurture and protect children, children will feel betrayed by the very people who are called to give them an image of God. When a child has lost a sense of trust and confidence in those who represent God to him, it is not unreasonable to conclude that he will lack confidence and trust in God himself.

Our relationship with God flows through our relationship with each other. We are the Mystical Body of Christ, and what each member does affects the rest of the Body. Children naturally have this intuition. This is why Christ said that we must become like little children. This is why the wise and the learned will not enter the Kingdom, but the children will. They have more wisdom than the wise. They know! Children see and understand the hypocrisy and absurdity of it all.

Whenever the “wise” restrict children’s movements, freedom, education and social interaction, these children receive a wound to their souls. When these wounds come from the Church, we should know now where it leads. If the Church, Body of Christ, hurts them enough, they will completely turn their backs on the Church and on God.

The goal of Catholic education is to lead children on their way to Godto help them know, love and serve God in this life so that they may be happy with Him in eternity. A school that does not live by this principle is not a Catholic school. Only one thing is necessary for Catholic education to be Catholic: namely, to stick to the mission of bringing its students to Heaven. By this measure, therefore, many of our diocesan schools, which continue to emphasize that physical safety is of the utmost importance, are failing their students.

Yet there is always an opportunity to make a change, and now is the opportunity. Our superintendent is right to be excited about the growth of our schools. With increasing enrollment numbers, Catholic schools are in a strategic position to show the world who we really are. And it starts with putting the eternal health of their students above anything else.

[Image Credit: Catholic Schools in the Archdiocese of New York website]