Earlier this week, I delivered a graduation message to the Class of 2020 — virtually. It was posted on YouTube and shared on social media. Another sign of these unusual times since the coronavirus.

My prayer is that the Class of 2020 will be remembered as a heroic generation that used the gifts of a Catholic education to love and serve and build a better world at a time of national distress, when society had been turned upside down by a deadly pandemic and faced widespread uncertainty about the future. 

I am also praying that we can act to sustain the schools they graduated from, because right now Catholic schools are facing enormous challenges. Parishes, shut down for three months, have lost millions in collection monies. Across the country, we see drop-offs in enrollments for next year, as families fear they will no longer be able to afford tuition. 

The National Catholic Educational Association says at least 100 schools will not reopen in the fall.

Catholic schools are not just a concern for Catholics. America’s 6,000 Catholic schools play a vital role in our national education infrastructure, giving young people the chance to realize the American dream, especially those from minority and low-income families.

Here in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the nation’s largest Catholic school system, 80% of our 74,000 students come from minority families, and 60% of our schools are located in urban or inner-city neighborhoods. Many of the children we serve, 17%, are not Catholics.

In the wake of the coronavirus lockdowns, our 265 schools made a remarkable transition to distance learning. Within three days, nearly all were up and running, teaching students online. Through generous support from donors, we were able to provide students with more than 20,000 iPads for home learning.

Though forced to close schools, we have not stopped serving poor students and their families. We are providing about 18,000 meals every day — more than 500,000 and counting — since the pandemic hit.

But we are reaching the limits of what we can do through the kindness and sacrifices of our Catholic community.

With the help of generous benefactors, we have worked hard to make it possible for even our poorest families to have access to a high-quality education. Over the past 25 years, our Catholic Education Foundation has granted more than $200 million in scholarships to 181,000 low-income students.

Catholics’ dedication to providing schools for every child will continue. But right now, in the middle of this national disaster caused by the coronavirus, we also need to seek help from our leaders in Washington.

One consequence of this country’s shameful legacy of anti-Catholic bigotry are the so-called “Blaine Amendments.” These are still used by 37 states across the country to prevent taxpayer monies from being used to help students in religious schools.

Over the years, this has resulted in an unfair situation for poor and middle-class families. They are forced to pay tuition for their children’s education while at the same time also paying taxes to support children enrolled in the public school system.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule later this month in a case that could finally overturn these amendments and end this deep inequality in education funding.

But Congress and the White House cannot afford to wait. They should act now to provide immediate relief to help families handle their education expenses and also to expand nationwide school-choice opportunities for poor and middle-class families. 

We should not think of this as having to choose between taxpayer funded public schools and tuition-based independent schools. We are in this coronavirus crisis together, as one nation. Public schools and independent schools equally deserve and urgently need our government’s assistance.

The presence of diverse educational options — a thriving public school system along with a strong network of independent schools, including religious schools — has always been a source of American vitality. We need to act now to ensure that educational diversity survives this pandemic.

In addition to graduating an amazing 99% of our students, with 86% going on to college, Catholic schools provide great economic value to our country. Per-pupil costs of public schools are about $12,000 a year. With nearly 2 million Catholic school students, that means Catholic schools are saving the nation’s taxpayers about $24 billion each year.

If Catholic schools are allowed to fail in large numbers, it would cost public schools about $20 billion to absorb their students, a cost already-burdened public schools should not be made to bear.

And the loss of Catholic schools would be an American tragedy. It would set back opportunities for generations of children living in low-income and inner-city neighborhoods. We cannot accept this outcome for America’s children.

Pray for me this week and I will pray for you.

And let us ask Mary, our Blessed Mother, to intercede for our Catholic schools, that we may offer every child the chance to learn in an atmosphere that promotes excellence and virtue.