Jeanne Gearon, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Burlington, was recently interviewed about the past and current school years by Vermont Catholic Managing Editor Cori Fugere Urban. Here is their Q and A:

Q: For the 2020-21 school year, how did Vermont Catholic schools adjust for the pandemic safety protocols?

A: The principals worked collaboratively with the Office of Catholic Schools to draft a guiding document titled: “United in Faith, Returning with CARE: Communities and Academics Reimagined Effectively.” This document provided a framework for responding to the pandemic that each school in turn used to craft its local protocols and procedures.

I cannot say enough how the efforts at the local level from the principals, teachers and school staffs made it possible for our students to experience in-person learning on a full-time basis.  The support they received from the pastors/priests who minister to our schools as well as from the students’ families and all members of each school community was phenomenal. The work they undertook and the sacrifices they endured were not easy, and it only happened because everyone worked together to place the needs of the students at the forefront.

Q: How did the pandemic affect enrollment?

A: Preschool through grade 12 enrollment for the 2019-2020 school year in Vermont was 1,908. For the 2020-2021 it was 1,835, and the projected enrollment for 2021-2022 was 1,990.

Q: To what do you attribute this change in enrollment?

A: As a Diocese, last year we experienced an overall enrollment decline of around 4 percent.  I believe that this was largely due to families opting to home school due to concerns regarding the pandemic. For the upcoming school year, diocesan-wide, we are projecting around an 8 percent enrollment increase.  There are many reasons for this, one of which may have been our ability to provide consistent in-person learning last year. Our schools welcoming students back full-time and remaining full-time throughout the year may have sparked interest within the community to explore more deeply what we have to offer.

Q: According to “Data Brief: Catholic School Enrollment and School Closures, Post-Covid-19” from the National Catholic Educational Association, a report released in February, the Covid-19 pandemic can be seen as one of the most transformative catalysts for educational change in the United States. Schools of all types – public, charter, private, parochial, online or homeschool – have been significantly impacted as a result of the pandemic’s disruptions to communities and society. What is your comment?

A: While the pandemic is certainly not something anyone wanted to have occur, nor, I suspect, do any of us what it to reoccur, there is the reality that it forced us to think outside the box.  We discovered things about ourselves that we did not know before both as individuals and as a community.  Schools are made up of people, and as each of us learns more about ourself, our schools are changed.  We have to look for the positives from this pandemic, and if one of those positives is that we have learned how to provide education in more meaningful ways for students, then this is indeed a blessing.

Q: Catholic school enrollment throughout the nation dropped 6.4 percent from the previous academic year – the largest single year decline in nearly 50 years. With a decline of more than 111,000 students from 2019-2020 to 2020-2021, the Covid-19 pandemic’s impact on total enrollment in Catholic schools outpaces the largest drop in the last 50 years. What is your comment?

A: The pandemic struck a blow to all aspects of society.  Catholic education, like all ministries of the Church, relies on the generosity of others.  Be it donations or tuition, we rely on generosity.  When all around us business were closing and thus families were losing their livelihood, it is the natural outcome that people have fewer financial resources with which they can choose to be generous. For some families already struggling to meet financial responsibilities and for some schools already working with stretched budgets, the impact of the pandemic was just too much to bear.

Q: Why are Catholic schools needed in Vermont today?

A: Catholic schools are one of the options Vermonters have who are seeking a faith-based education for their children. Many parents value this, and they sincerely want their children to be educated within a spiritually rich environment.  If the Catholic schools were not in Vermont, then the Vermonters seeking this for their families would have far fewer options.

Q: What is your hope for Vermont Catholic school students, teachers, staff and families for this school year?

A: I pray daily for our school communities, and just as this past year was a year like no other, I pray that the upcoming school year is also a year like no other. During this year of St. Joseph, we have no one better to turn to who can teach us how to journey through hardship with grace and come out of it with a renewed sense of hope-filled joy that flows from authentic peace.  That is my prayer for each school community, each principal, each teacher, each staff member, each student, each family — hope-filled joy that flows from authentic peace.

—Originally published in the Fall 2021 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.