Over the past two years, our society has created an idol out of physical health and safety, protecting them at all costs. But Jesus tells us Himself: “Do not fear 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 far worse than illness and bodily suffering—like separation from God.
Sadly, many of our Catholic schools have not been immune to society’s idolatry, as demonstrated by the strict Covid policies in many schools, and it will destroy the faith of our Catholic school children if we don’t remedy the situation.
Recently, there have been news pieces showing that Catholic education is growing again, extolling the Catholic schools across the country as being an example throughout the pandemic by remaining open and serving families. Yes, this is true. When public schools were closed, diocesan schools around the country managed to at least do a hybrid learning model. As a result, families are now enrolling in Catholic schools as an alternate option to public schools.
What these pieces fail to examine, however, is that now, in the second full school year during the pandemic, the environment in Catholic schools has not changed substantially. They are still operating this year using the protocols that were seemingly necessary to reopen at the height of the pandemic. The decision-makers have failed to reassess the current situation in which we find ourselves, instead opting to continue the same restrictive policies from September 2020.
To illustrate, here are some of the protocols in place in the Archdiocese of New York schools and what this looks like on a practical basis for our children. (These are actual experiences from families in schools across the Archdiocese of New York, but I believe that the environment in other large, city dioceses is similar.)
Children must stay within their classroom cohort at all times. A child in fifth grade must always be with the other children in fifth grade, and a child in second grade must always be with the other second graders. So, at recess this means that cohorts must be kept separate, and each grade is assigned a section to play in for the day; they may not play in another section that is assigned to another grade. This 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.
The use of cohorts in the buildings has other effects. Extracurriculars cannot be hosted because they are typically of mixed age groups, which would be deemed unsafe together in one setting. 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 some unreasonable situations regarding lunchtime. Some schools have chosen to spread children out six feet apart at tables and enforce “quiet lunch” while masks are off. There is no talking while eating. Other schools have opted to keep children seated at their classroom desks and follow a staggered eating schedule, allowing students in every other row to eat while the other half of the children wait for their turn to unmask and eat.
Masking outdoors during gym or recess has been arbitrarily and inconsistently implemented at different schools around the archdiocese. The lunacy of such policies is obvious. Furthermore, there have been instances in which a teacher has been unmasked outside while enforcing masking among the students.
As well as utilizing masking and cohorts, the schools must maintain a three-foot separation of students at all times. This means the youngest students, who would normally learn while sitting at group tables or on a rug together, must sit at their own desk at all times. This distancing rule has also led to the fact that, if the school actually continues to attend Mass, which some have not, the whole school population will not attend Mass together.
Of course, children go to Mass with their families on Sundays, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers. But we cannot have the whole school in the church together at one time to celebrate Mass as a community. In addition, parents are not allowed to attend any school Masses with their children. Prior to Covid, it was a common practice for many parents to attend the school Mass. In fact, now parents are not allowed into the school buildings at any time for any reason. If a parent should be offered the rare opportunity to volunteer in the building, they must present a vaccination card in order to do so.
When parents question these policies, the common refrain is that the Archdiocesan decision-makers are doing their best to keep everyone safe. Parents have been told repeatedly that the administrators are most proud of the fact that the spread of Covid in our schools has been almost zero. (See Superintendent Deegan’s letter dated Jan 18, 2022, or this article in which he speaks about the limited spread in schools.) But what does safe mean? Does it only apply to physical safety?
I contend that our children are not safe. These protocols come at a price, and the price tag is their social, emotional, and—most tragically—spiritual well-being. Any perceptive adult can see this. Our children have borne the brunt of the burden when it comes to Covid. They have had to endure what most adults have not, and they know that this is done at the hands of those who are responsible for their protection.
When a six-year-old can question the logic of the protocols, we have lost all credibility. When an eight-year-old cannot get a hug from a teacher on a particularly hard day, we have significantly wounded our children. If their social health mattered, they wouldn’t be forced to segregate themselves from other members of the community. They would be able to participate in extracurriculars, have school functions, and be mask free.
If their emotional health mattered, the Archdiocese wouldn’t implement policies that effectively eliminate any sense of community and partnership between the parents, their children, and the schools. Considering that Catholics hold that parents are the primary educators of their own children, this is beyond reason.
Most grievously, our children are learning that the adults in charge of making these decisions don’t take their spiritual health seriously. If the spiritual life mattered, the youngest students wouldn’t be left out of the celebration of Mass, nor would a whole school watch Mass via teleconferencing because of the perceived threat of exposure to illness. When older students see that the adults are more interested in following arbitrary rules in the guise of protecting physical health, rather than emphasizing the importance of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, they learn that Mass is not important. It is through actions like this that our children learn mediocrity in their spiritual lives, a complacency which leads to the eventual death of faith.
When some of the decision-makers wear clerics or a religious habit, the damage to the children is compounded. This is a lesson that Catholics should have long ago learned: when those who represent God fail to nurture and protect children, the children will feel betrayed by the very people who are called to image God to them. When a child has lost a sense of trust and reliance on those who represent God to them, it is not unreasonable to conclude that they will lack trust in and reliance on God Himself.
Our relationship with God flows into 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 intuit this. That’s why Christ has said we must become like little children. That’s why the wise and 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.
Every time the “wise” restrict the children’s movement, their freedom, their education, and their social interaction, those children receive a wound to their soul. When those wounds come from the Church, we should know by now where that leads. If the Church, the Body of Christ, wounds them enough, they will turn their backs completely on the Church and on God.
The purpose of Catholic education is to lead children on their path to God—to help them to 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, holding to the mission of getting their students to Heaven. By this measure, therefore, many of our diocesan schools, that continue to emphasize that physical safety is of 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 that starts by putting the eternal health of their students above anything else.
[Image Credit: Catholic Schools in the Archdiocese of New York website]