Catholic schools celebrate faith in their future

The Catholic Schools Office, Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, is drawing on contingency funds to assist all schools navigate financial pressures resulting from COVID-19.

It has never taken this step before, but Diocesan Director of Catholic Schools, Gerard Mowbray, says the decision to make the $2.2 million investment is considered essential to ensuring all schools are safe.

"By providing this financial support, we aim to reassure our school communities including parents, carers, students and staff that we have the means to operate safely in a COVID-19 context," Mr Mowbray said.

The funding announcement was made to principals as schools prepared to increase face-to-face learning and is in addition to money provided by the Federal Government to support additional hygiene measures in schools.

"We have asked principals to ensure enhanced cleaning measures are in place, the availability of sanitation and hygiene products increased, and appropriate staffing arrangements made,” Mr Mowbray said. “All of these measures cost money."

He said the Diocese is cognisant it is placing these stringent demands on schools at a time when many were experiencing increased financial stress due to some fees being deferred or waived at the request of families.

"We recognised that schools' costs are increasing at a time when their fee revenue may be decreasing, so we moved to provide additional financial support," Mr Mowbray said. "This is not a time to be frugal. We must be sensible and the safety and wellbeing of our school communities is always our top priority."

The Chief Executive Officer of the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, Sean Scanlon, said that the Catholic Schools Office will not be cutting funding to other programs or services to accommodate this financial support of schools.

"Astute organisations prepare for extraordinary events, and the careful management of school funding over the past decade has enabled the Catholic Schools Office, in collaboration with the Diocese, to take this extraordinary measure,” Mr Scanlon said. “We expected the contingency funds might one day be used for rebuilding after floods, an earthquake or bushfires, but then the pandemic arrived."

Mr Mowbray said the level of financial support provided to each school will vary in line with their size, and made in three instalments, over three months.

"The amount provided to each school is moderate and measured,” Mr Mowbray said. “Guidelines will ensure the funds are spent responsibly by principals who have been tasked with allocating the funds to guarantee effective operations are maintained within their schools."

The principal of San Clemente High School, Mayfield, Bernard Burgess, welcomed the cash injection.

"This funding will go a long way towards keeping our school community safe and secure,” Mr Burgess said. “Safe in terms of the practical aspects of funding for extra cleaning and medical supplies that assure staff, students and families that our school is a place where learning and community can continue uninterrupted. Secure in the sense that families will be supported through this financially challenging period."

The principal of St Columban's Primary School, Mayfield, Danielle Reed, expects the funding will be of use not only in the present, but also into the future.

"We will use the funds in the spirit of Catholic social justice, and therefore they will be put towards mitigating both the short and long-term effects of COVID-19 on our school community,” Ms Reed said. “Our first priority is continuing with our enhanced cleaning and supplies. Additionally, we will look to offset decreased income due to being unable to hold fundraising events, assisting families in need with school fees and purchasing school supplies. The money will go a long way towards ensuring our community remains strong, safe and connected."

When the Catholic Schools Office announced to all families on 1 April that fee concessions and deferments were available to families, many schools including San Clemente High and St Columban's Primary started receiving enquiries from families.

"We understand that COVID-19 has struck people of all walks of life, health-wise and financially, and wanted to do all that we could to support our families," Mr Mowbray said.

"It has always been the Diocese's policy that financial hardship should not prevent a child from attending a Catholic school and that no child will be denied a Catholic education because of a family's genuine inability to pay the required fees.

"We have not moved to introduce a standard fee concession, because there is no 'one size fits all' approach. COVID-19 has impacted families in different ways. Principals are best placed to respond to enquiries regarding fees sensitively and confidentially, at a local level."

With face-to-face teaching increasing at all Catholic schools, Ms Reed and Mr Burgess said their staff had been delighted to reunite with students.

"We missed the children," Ms Reed said. "It's been far too quiet here at school. I think the isolation period has led to a deeper appreciation of each other as a community. To see the joy on the children's faces as they greeted their teachers and friends this week was wonderful.

“It was lovely to be able to greet their parents at drop-off and hear how they have coped. Everyone has expressed a great sense of relief that the situation is slowly becoming more 'normal', and I think the lasting effect of COVID-19 will be a stronger connection to each other and our faith."

Mr Burgess agreed, saying "apart from the obvious interruption to learning and broader social and economic impacts on local families, the San Clemente community has realised new connectivity through online learning and a sense of togetherness even while apart".

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Lizzie Snedden Image
Lizzie Snedden

Lizzie is Team Leader Content for the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.