We begin this new school year with great hope and lots of uncertainty. Across the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, our schools are open with our students at home, learning online.

I think there is wide agreement that the best thing for our kids would be to have them returning to their classrooms for in-person instruction.

But the reality is that, based on guidance from health officials, Gov. Gavin Newsom has barred the reopening of the vast majority of California’s public and independent schools in an effort to stop further outbreaks of the coronavirus.

We are committed to doing our best within the limitations imposed by this “new normal.” And I am confident that this is going to be a great year for our schools and our young people.

Earlier this year, in the midst of the coronavirus lockdowns, I was deeply impressed to see how our schools were able to quickly make the transition to distance learning. This is a testament to both the faith and professionalism of our schools’ personnel and our families’ dedication to their children’s education.

Thanks to their hard work, we finished the school year strong, despite the pandemic that hit our churches and neighborhoods hard and left many of our school families without work and facing uncertain futures.

Since then, our Catholic schools department has worked around-the-clock with teachers, principals, students, and parents, and we are proud to report that we have 262 schools open for the new academic year and we have 66,000 students eager and ready to learn.

Sadly, we were forced to close two elementary schools. And while we won’t have final numbers until early October, so far enrollment is down nearly 15% in our elementary schools and 8% in our high schools, as parents worry that they won’t have enough money to afford tuition. 

Los Angeles is the nation’s largest Catholic school system, and we feel strongly here that our schools are essential to the Church’s mission of serving society and promoting human dignity.

About 80% of our students come from minority families and 60% of our schools are located in urban or inner-city neighborhoods. Nearly 20% of the children we serve are not Catholics.

I remain committed to doing everything I can to keep our schools open and thriving, and to providing a Catholic education for every child who seeks it.

I’m thankful to have the support of so many generous benefactors, who provide crucial funding for our school facilities and infrastructures and make it possible for us to give scholarships to low-income and minority students through our Catholic Education Foundation.

But I am concerned. Even before the pandemic, the number of children seeking scholarships has continued to rise each year.

Behind the current drop in enrollment is the reality that this virus has devastated local economies and driven many of our families into crisis. Along with the pain and uncertainty our people are suffering, our parishes have been essentially closed now for almost six months. We estimate weekly offertory collections are down about 40 percent, meaning we have far less capacity to support our schools and needy students.

What we are experiencing here in Los Angeles is being felt in every local church nationwide. The economic downturn caused by the pandemic has already forced the permanent closure of nearly 140 of the nation’s more than 6,000 Catholic schools. Many hundreds more are at risk of closing or being forced to consolidate, and many of these are serving the nation’s poorest communities.

I said earlier this summer that the loss of our Catholic schools would be an American tragedy. This is true.

In recent weeks, my brother bishops and I have urged Congress and the White House to take action to help families and support Catholic and other independent schools.

As faithful citizens, all of us have the responsibility to make sure that this issue does not get lost in election-year politics.

We need to urge our leaders to ensure that Catholic schools are included in any further coronavirus relief package, and they should provide emergency direct scholarship aid to low-income children attending Catholic and other independent schools.

Especially in this moment when we are painfully aware of race-based inequalities in our society, our nation should make expanding school choice for families a top social justice priority.

Catholic schools have long played an important role in building up inner-city neighborhoods and lifting minority families out of poverty. A recent study finds that a black or Latino child is 42% more likely to graduate high school and two-and-a-half times more likely to graduate from college if the child attends a Catholic school.

Pray for me this week and I will pray for you, and let us pray for all our returning students and for their dedicated teachers, school administrators, and benefactors.

And let us ask our Blessed Mother Mary to intercede and bring wisdom and courage to our leaders.