When students head back to classrooms in one form or another this fall, one of Kodiak’s schools will remain empty. St. Mary’s Catholic School announced last Friday that it was suspending operations for the 2020-2021 school year. School leaders hope it can reopen next fall.
“We didn’t want to start this year and close down halfway through. That’s not fair to anybody,” Father Frank Reitter said.
A letter from Archbishop-designate Andrew Bellesario delivered the bad news.
“Unfortunately the financial effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the low enrollment numbers have simply been too great for our classes to continue next school year,” it read.
Reitter said school staff started looking at the situation in May and considered a number of possibilities for the year.
Several of the school’s major fundraising opportunities, like the auction night called Serendipity and fish frys, had to be called off. Enrollment dipped. So did thrift store sales and collections from the parish.
The school did get some funding from the federal CARES Act , but it wasn’t enough to fill the gap. Uncertainty about what problems the virus might cause in classrooms was layered on top of all of it.
The parish finance council, the school board, the pastoral council and the archdiocesan council all looked into the issue. They then forwarded their recommendation to the archdiocese, which made the ultimate decision to close the doors for a year, Reitter said.
“We just couldn’t make the numbers work,” he said.
Not everyone, however, agreed with the decision to suspend the school year. Some parents felt like the school could have opened in the fall anyway.
“It’s a shock and a disappointment,” said Angela Graham, the mother of a kindergartener and first grader.
“This was a year where it would have been tight, but it was no tighter than any other year. We were ready. You had passionate parents, you had good administration, you had a good principal, you had teachers that weren’t taking other jobs. It’s a bummer … I really hope people understand there was a huge push to make this work.”
Zoya Herrnsteen, the mother of an eighth grader, felt similarly. She said the spacious school and church buildings would have made social-distance learning a possibility.
“It would have been possible to do a strong socially distanced program, and St. Mary’s had the capacity to do this,” she said.
Sixty students planned to attend the school in fall, which offers classes from kindergarten to eighth grade. Attendance is up from close to 40 when Reitter arrived in Kodiak six years ago, but it’s still far less than the 200 students the school attracted in the 1990s. That means the school, like many small, private schools, operates on tight margins.
“Most Catholic schools are run by great staff who are underpaid and overworked and the finances are real slim from year to year. It’s just really difficult,” Reitter said.
Herrnsteen said that this year would not have been any more challenging than years past, when enrollment had dwindled lower.
“Having had kids at the school there for nine years, I saw ups and downs. My sense was that this down wasn’t as down as the earlier downs,” she said.
Reitter said the parents did not have access to financial numbers to make a decision about reopening the school.
“They didn’t see the numbers. The archdiocesan committee has six financial people and the numbers didn’t add,” he said.
He added that COVID-19 could further cloud the financial picture down the road. If, say, the school has to go remote and several families drop out, then things would look very different.
“The numbers may look good now, but as the year develops, and COVID happens, you don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t have a cushion underneath the school,” Reitter said.
Still, he said everyone at St. Mary’s is prepared to come back next year.
“A lot of people are saying they’re going to miss St. Mary’s. We’re not closing. We’re suspending,” he said.
In the meantime, Hernnsteen said she and other parents are banding together to form “pandemic” pods. They’ll hire a teacher from St. Mary’s to instruct their kids in a smaller-scale environment than sending them to public schools.
Graham said she hasn’t decided yet, but has also considered hiring a St. Mary’s teacher to help out.
“I don’t know yet. I don’t know. I’m still kind of processing the decision,” she said.