Why we felt called to open our Catholic schools full-time, in-person amid COVID-19

I am a member of a community of Catholics that has thought for months on whether to reopen our diocese schools this fall. As with any decision that relates to health and safety during the pandemic, it was not an easy one.

But in the end, the diocese chose the path that was true to its purpose: The church exists to serve the community and minister to its needs. We do this in many ways. We operate institutions of healing — there are roughly 600 church-sponsored hospitals nationwide and 1,400 long-term care facilities. And during this pandemic, they have sought to save lives.

We also operate 7,500 schools for 2.3 million students. During this pandemic, they must teach.

The greatest work of the faithful is done when the moment is most perilous. Feeding the hungry, reaching out to the lonely, healing the sick, protecting the most vulnerable, whether at life’s beginning or life’s end — this is the faithful’s calling. In the words of Pope John Paul II, our faith teaches us: Be not afraid.

And that applies especially to the pandemic that afflicts America today. It is a dangerous moment, and it’s no wonder many are opposed to reopening until a vaccine for COVID-19 is widely available. Schools can’t prevent students from contracting the virus at a birthday party or a gathering or from a relative living under their roof. Yet schools will be blamed if there’s an outbreak.

This may seem unfair. However, it’s also not fair to turn this fear into a campaign against religious and private schools that wish to reopen.

Catholic and other parochial schools are used to being considered a direct challenge to public schools. When students succeed in Catholic schools where they struggled in public ones, there is an implicit comparison — and a judgment.

This is a matter of our unique mission, whether in operating schools or hospitals, to combine the dignified work of faithful hearts with the inspiring achievements of the human mind and science. God has granted us the power to think, but that requires that we develop, nurture, reward and sacrifice for it. So we must teach — even when others think it’s dangerous.

The work of the faithful — teachers, administrators, school nurses, donors and students themselves — cannot be attempted without sacrifice. But our faith and our calling leave us no other choice but to teach our children in-person.

The church is hardly alone in seeing this as a moment of spiritual testing. Other faith-based institutions have also risen to the challenge. Campus faith-based groups like Hillel continue to meet the spiritual needs of students. Sikh communities are delivering food to health-care workers and prescriptions to seniors isolated by COVID.

The work we have sought to do — feeding the body or the soul, helping people end the grip of drug abuse, returning former inmates to society and lives of purpose — must continue. And it’s not just for the benefit of society, but also for the benefit of those who do the work.

The American Catholic Church, tarnished by scandal, has no other path. It must return to its roots of service. This is the church’s moment. Surrendering these responsibilities is not acceptable. That would deny something to students — and something else to those who teach.

We must make accommodations for safety, of course. We can be cautious, responsible and protect those in our school buildings. If we are able to do so and demonstrate extreme care, we may begin the hard work of rebuilding trust in the church as an institution.

In so doing, we may also be able to set an example for other institutions — both civic and faith-based. Keep in mind that the success of such faith-based missions is enabled by our Constitution, which limits governmental meddling, as opposed to with public schools.

Let’s inscribe on our hearts the words of scripture, the wonder-working words of our faiths, that call on us to do the hard thing, even when it’s dangerous, even when we could lose something. Because if we give into fear, we lose something far greater.

Thomas Chiapelas serves on the board of trustees at De Smet Jesuit High School in St. Louis, Mo.

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