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Three Long Island Catholic schools closing because of coronavirus' impact

Saint Peter of Alcantara Elementary School in Port

Saint Peter of Alcantara Elementary School in Port Washington won't reopen in September. Credit: Jeff Bachner

Three Long Island Catholic elementary schools, including one nearly a century old, are closing because the coronavirus badly hurt their finances amid falling enrollment, church officials said Friday.

The shutdowns are part of what educators fear will be a wave of closings of private religious and independent schools in New York as COVID-19 causes job losses and salary deductions,  leaving parents unable to afford tuition.

Holy Family Regional School in Commack, Our Lady of Wisdom Regional School in Port Jefferson, and Saint Peter of Alcantara Elementary School in Port Washington will not reopen in September, said Sean Dolan, spokesman for the Diocese of Rockville Centre. 

“We are deeply saddened by the closings of these three elementary schools,” Dolan said. “COVID-19 has had a significant financial impact on all of the parishes and schools within the Diocese, resulting in the difficult decision to close these three Catholic elementary schools in order to eliminate the unsustainable financial stress on their parishes.”

James Cultrara, co-chairman of the New York State Coalition for Independent and Religious Schools, said dozens of private schools are likely to close unless the federal government steps in with temporary, emergency tuition assistance or extends the Payroll Protection Program. That measure was enacted earlier this year to help businesses and schools weather the worst economic crisis in decades.

“It’s just mind-boggling what this pandemic has caused,” Cultrara said. “There will be many schools that simply will not be able to reopen.”

If the schools close, many of their students will end up in public schools, straining already stressed budgets and adding students at a time when the public schools face challenges to create enough “social distance” to reopen and function safely, he said.

Dolan said the three schools on Long Island, like Catholic schools nationwide, have sustained enrollment declines for years and required growing financial support from parishes to supplement tuition revenues.

The coronavirus crisis caused registrations to drop further, he said.

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

Holy Family Regional School, formerly called Christ the King school, was established by the Dominican Sisters of Amityville on the campus of the Parish of Christ the King. It is a regional school supported by four area parishes.

Its enrollment of 139 students in kindergarten through eighth grade was a 43% drop from 2014. The four parishes were expected to provide more than $400,000 this year — more than 30% of the school’s total revenues — to keep the school afloat.

“Given the significant decline in offertory collections due to COVID-19, it is unlikely that the parishes would be able to continue this level of support in the 2020-21 school year and beyond,” Dolan said.

It was a similar situation at the other schools.

Our Lady of Wisdom Regional School, which opened in 1938, saw its enrollment drop 37%, to 66 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, from 2014 to the current school year.

Its four supporting parishes were expected to provide $475,000, or 45% of the school’s total revenue this school year.

Saint Peter of Alcantara School, which opened in 1925, has seen enrollment decline 52%, to 99 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, since 2014. In 2018-19, it received more than $220,000 in support from the parish and diocese.

One parent who has sent four children to Holy Family in Commack said the closure is heartbreaking.

“We are, to say the least, devastated,” said Chris Gunsel, whose oldest child attended from kindergarten through 8th grade, and was followed by his three younger siblings.

Two still attend, and will be entering 5th and 7th grades. “We will be shopping for another Catholic school,” said Gunsel, who lives in Hauppauge.

Students from the shuttered schools will be able to pursue enrollment at the other 35 remaining Catholic elementary schools on Long Island, Dolan said. The system is undergoing a revitalization overseen by the Marianist Brothers, who run Chaminade and Kellenberg high schools.

Cultrara said his organization is urging Congress to approve temporary emergency tuition assistance the same way it did when the survival of private schools was imperiled by massive wildfires in western states, including California last year, and by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017.

If many private schools close and students enroll in public schools, it will be “not only a far greater cost to the state," he said, "but it will force school districts to stretch their thin dollars even farther and exacerbate the safe distancing that everyone seems to realize is going to be necessary.”

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