Zahirra Khan-Willins, an eighth-grade teacher, has taught a lot of challenging classes on Zoom this year. But her toughest lesson came last July, when she said goodbye to her students on a video call.
Khan-Willins, 43, worked at Sts. Philip and James School in the Bronx for two decades. The school closed when the coronavirus pandemic made a precarious financial situation insurmountable, the Archdiocese of New York said in a statement.
“I told the kids, ‘Even though we’re not together any more in the same building, we will always be in touch,’” Khan-Willins said. “Some kids were very emotional. It was absolutely heartbreaking and I don’t think I’ll ever be over it.”
Sts. Philip and James was one of 17 Catholic schools — a record number — to shut in New York City this year out of a total of about 175. The pandemic left the city’s Catholic schools scrambling to close budget deficits as donations plummeted and students left the city with their parents, experts said.
Many families who remain are struggling to pay tuition — which at Sts. Philip and James was $6,000 last year — and the schools ran up unexpected expenses as they retrofitted old buildings to meet pandemic-era health standards.
Catholic schools in the city have struggled since the 2008 recession triggered a mounting financial crisis. Eleven closed last year, and in 2018, two shut and two merged. The city has seen Catholic schools close at an accelerating rate for the last decade.
“Funding is the major issue,” said Akane Zusho, the interim dean of the Graduate School of Education at Fordham University, a Catholic college. “The pandemic has exacerbated this.”
In the 1960s, over 5 million children attended Catholic schools nationwide. Since then, Catholic schools have grappled with rising teaching expenses, the advent of charter schools and demographic shifts in the U.S. Catholic population, all of which have left the schools with an enrollment that’s about one-third of what it was 60 years ago, according to the National Catholic Education Association.
In New York City, tuition ranges from $6,000 to $20,000 per year, and that covers just over three-quarters of a Catholic school budget, Zusho said. Schools normally close this gap through fundraisers and donations. But the pandemic slashed those vital financial pipelines, said James Cultrara, the education director at the New York State Catholic Conference, a public policy group representing the bishops of New York state.
The pandemic halted weekly Mass, Cultrara said, which is where churches typically collected parishioners’ donations for the schools. In addition, the Diocese of Brooklyn and the Archdiocese of New York, which encompass all five boroughs, had to cancel end-of-year fundraisers. Officials at the Diocese of Brooklyn said its schools lost $5 million from scrapping those events.
“That’s a major hit to budgets that are already very tight,” said John Notaro, the executive director of both Futures in Education, the diocese’s fundraising arm, and the Catholic Foundation for Brooklyn and Queens. “There’s a risk that continued pressure from COVID without any relief … may be too much for our schools to overcome.”
St. Joseph-St. Thomas School in Staten Island was another school that couldn’t outlast the pandemic.
“The last two years, enrollment went down,” said Mary Ellen Cilento, the former principal of St. Joseph-St. Thomas. “It’s tough to compete with all of the free preschools drawing students away,” referring to Mayor Bill De Blasio’s initiative.
Most of Cilento’s students switched to a nearby Catholic school. But she’s sad for her students who moved to public schools, she said, because she fears they won’t be a part of an intimate community anymore.
“Catholic schools typically are a smaller environment, more family-centered and everybody shares the same moral values and tenets of the faith,” Cilento said. “That’s important. The closure takes a lot away from people.”
Esha Deoraj, 12, attended Our Lady of the Assumption School in the Bronx for seven years, but last June, her mother woke her up to tell her she had received an email that the school was closing.
“It felt very abrupt,” Deoraj said. “I had to say good-bye to my friends either over text or not at all. I thought I would be able to graduate before my school closed.”
Deoraj’s mother, Lucil Deoraj, said she cried when she found out her daughter’s school was closing. She had to scramble to find a new school for Esha.
“It was like a second home for myself and her,” said her mother, Lucil Deoraj. “Everybody knew her by face. I could call the teachers if I was worried. This is like waking up from a bad dream.”
This summer, after losing her teaching job at the Bronx Catholic school, Khan-Willins decided to withdraw two of her own children from Catholic school and enroll them in public schools, because she feared she couldn’t afford their steep tuition.
“I didn’t only suffer a loss of my job,” Khan-Willins said. “My children took the loss, too. I’d rather them be in a Catholic school. There’s more structure and routine.”
Khan-Willins found a teaching position this fall at another parochial school in the Bronx. But, with the pandemic still ravaging New York City’s Catholic schools, she plans to find a new job in the public education system.
“Public school pays more,” Khan-Willins said. “I’m devastated.”