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Two Long Island Catholic schools closing amid rising pandemic costs

The St. Thomas the Apostle School in West

The St. Thomas the Apostle School in West Hempstead is one of two closing. Credit: Google Map

Two more Catholic grammar schools on Long Island — including one nearly a century old — are closing largely because of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, church officials said Tuesday, bringing to five the number shuttering in a year.

St. Thomas the Apostle School in West Hempstead and St. Raymond School in East Rockaway will close in June, at the end of this academic year, said Sean Dolan, a spokesman for the Diocese of Rockville Centre.

The diocese shut three other grammar schools last June, and will be left running 33 others in Nassau and Suffolk counties after the latest closings.

"We are deeply saddened by the closings of these two elementary schools," Dolan said.

Both schools had suffered enrollment declines for several years, but the pandemic sharply reduced donations at Masses — which were virtual-only for weeks — and fundraising efforts that supported the schools, dealing a final blow, he said.

"Unfortunately, enrollment loss combined with the impact of COVID-19 on both parish offertory collections and fundraising efforts, has made it clear that it is not feasible to maintain these schools financially," said Dolan.

The latest schools to close on Long Island will join at least 30 Catholic schools in New York that shut over the last year because of falling enrollment, declining revenue and higher costs to operate amid the pandemic, said James Cultrara, co-chairman of the New York State Coalition for Independent and Religious Schools.

Many parents, including some who lost jobs, could not afford the tuition and did not re-enroll their children last fall, he said. Others stopped paying tuition last spring after the pandemic broke out.

Enrollment had been declining

Enrollment at St. Raymond School dropped by 49% over the last five years, to a total of 130 students in nursery through eighth grade at the start of the 2020-21 academic year, Dolan said.

To stay afloat, the school received more than $1 million in direct support from the parish during that time, he said. In the 2019-20 school year alone, the school received $330,000 in subsidies from the parish and the diocese.

The school was founded in 1927 and run by the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary on the campus of the Parish of St. Raymond in East Rockaway.

St. Thomas the Apostle School was founded in 1950 and "has played a vital role in forming future generations of young Catholics in the West Hempstead area," he said.

It was originally run by the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Enrollment over the last five years in nursery through eighth grade declined 35%, to 209 students. The school received $1 million in subsidies to stay afloat.

In 2019-20 alone, the school needed $272,000 from the parish and the diocese to function, Dolan said.

The pandemic increased operational costs and, at the same time, reduced the parish income that made a school subsidy possible, he said.

The schools that closed last June were Holy Family Regional School in Commack, Our Lady of Wisdom Regional School in Port Jefferson, and St. Peter of Alcantara Elementary School in Port Washington.

Cultrara said that enrollment typically dropped anywhere between 4% and 11% at individual Catholic schools in New York this academic year. Some schools also saw an influx of new families, many leaving public schools in part because the Catholic schools were offering full in-person instruction while most public schools were not, he said.

In some cases the new families filled or exceeded the enrollment gap, but that was not always the case, he said.

"What has been tragic about it is those who had been long committed to a Catholic education found themselves struggling to pay their bills, including tuition, and could not afford to re-enroll their kids," he said.

He noted that most of the schools operate on "very slim, if any" financial margins, and reopening costs amid the pandemic — with added requirements such as new ventilation systems — were "enormous."

It put some schools into debt, he said.

The state has about 500 Catholic schools, with about 200,000 students, he said.

Students at the schools that are closing can enroll in any other Catholic school on Long Island, Dolan said.

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