[Editor’s Note: Thomas W. Carroll is the Secretary of Education and Superintendent of Schools for the Archdiocese of Boston, overseeing 100 Catholic schools serving more than 31,000 students. Previously, Carroll founded and led a series of think tanks, scholarship organizations, and advocacy groups. Carroll also founded and ran a network of high-performing urban charter schools. He spoke to Charles Camosy about Catholic schools and the COVID-19 pandemic.]

Camosy: How would you characterize the state of Catholic education in Boston – and in general in the U.S. – before the pandemic?

Carroll: Since the mid-1960s, as the broader society has become more and more secular, the number of students in Catholic schools has declined from more than 5 million to less than 2 million today.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan has argued that we need to move beyond the “current hospice mentality” where we are “watching our schools slowly die” and managing the pain. I agree.

Since Cardinal Dolan wrote those words a decade ago, the financial challenges of Catholic education have expanded and, more importantly, the trends we need to counter have become dramatically more daunting. These are many. The replacement of faith in God – in many quarters – with a different “faith” in the false gods of consumerism, narcissism, and commerce. A coarsening of public discourse, in which many participants offer opinions wholly detached from truth.

Libertine social mores in which personal pleasure and convenience trumps mutual obligations, morality, or even a respect for life. A redefinition of language that discards biological truths and even blurs what it means to be human. And ready access to the internet that does much good but also overwhelms children and subtly but assuredly corrodes their values and behavior day by day.

This is not a world that needs Catholic schools less. This is a world that needs Catholic schools more.

But most of all, we need Catholic schools that are willing to be boldly, joyfully and confidently Catholic. That doesn’t mean aping secular schools, using politically correct textbooks, relegating our faith only to religion classes (as if God is an elective course), and allowing our faith to be taught by those who don’t actually believe in or any longer allow their personal lives to reflect the central moral teachings of the Church. This toxic stew is not what is needed at this historic moment.

How would you characterize it during the pandemic?

The pandemic revealed for all to see the commitment of Catholic educators to children, our respect for parents as the first educators of their children, and our commitment to building community.

We also showed our commitment to science and public health. We knew and proved a simple proposition: The safest place for a child in America right now is inside a school that’s following the health protocols.

In Boston, the decision of teachers’ unions to walk away from their obligations to children prompted a stampede of public-school refugees to Catholic schools that drove our enrollment up by more than 4,000 students while public schools remained shuttered and many public schools teachers essentially phoned it in.

The Archdiocese has no doubt taken some criticism for staying open. How do you respond to such criticism? And in particular, what has been the science-based case for making the choices you’ve made.

It’s really simple. We knew what parents knew – long before the experts. The remote learning of the spring, the social isolation, the barriers between teachers and students, the separation of children from their classroom friends, and the many services that couldn’t be provided over a Zoom session simply was not what children deserved. Every Catholic educator also missed their students deeply and profoundly. We all ached to reopen, to enjoy each other’s company and to restore that connection between teacher and student.

But we also knew that there was no way students were safer out in the community, where health protocols largely were not being followed.

Catholic schools, known for their discipline and order, know how to get children and adults to follow rules. So perhaps, it shouldn’t have surprised anyone that we followed COVID heath protocols better than anyone – and we proved that students could be kept safe, even in the midst of high levels of transmission in surrounding communities.

We’ve been proven right. We have 35,500 students, faculty and staff across 100 Catholic schools in the Boston Archdiocese. We are the largest district in Massachusetts geographically and the second largest in terms of students. We educate almost 70 percent of all students educated in Catholic schools in Massachusetts. Yet, our COVID cases amount to a very small fraction of one percent.

Our commitment to in-person instruction allowed the state to learn that in-person instruction was safe, leading the Governor to rethink triggers for going remote and prompting the Wall Street Journal to cite our schools to make the argument for reopening schools across America. The need to reopen schools is now becoming conventional wisdom.

Pandemics generally create significant social change on several different levels. Do you think education will look different going forward post-pandemic?

The pandemic forced all schools to upgrade their technology, train their teachers and staff, and expose students, parents, and teachers to the potential of technology.

This is all good. These steps were all necessary but not sufficient.

We now need to rethink how technology cannot only aid us in a pinch, but actually transform how education is delivered. Technology offers the potential to customize the delivery of education to better match the needs of individual students, magnify the “stickiness” of what we teach so that students don’t forget much of what they learn over time, expand our access to talent, vary the forms of how and when instruction occurs, and use adaptive technology to allow students to move forward as quickly as the abilities allow.

How can Catholic educational institutions, Catholic educators, and those of us who just want to support Catholic education take advantage of the changes to come?

We need to take a deep breath as the pandemic recedes. Then regroup.

In my view, we need to work together to reimagine Catholic education in three steps:

  1. correctly identify the problem we are attempting to solve (presently we are chasing many purposes and not executing any of them well enough);
  2. develop the courage to teach the Church’s moral teachings (even when – especially when — these teachings run counter to the broader disintegrating culture);
  3. redesign our schools to harness technology, project moral clarity and hire witnesses to the faith who will educate and evangelize generations of children who will become the true light for our faith and our nation.

This is serious work and far from easy to do well, but what is the alternative: stand by and watch the light of our faith slowly flicker and then extinguish? Catholic schools are the future of our faith, and arguably the last force that can save our culture from dissolution.

This is the work that all of us must dedicate ourselves: Clergy, religious sisters, lay men and women, educators, educational institutions, and philanthropic individuals and foundations.

Let’s roll.