Santa Barbara Catholic School is one of several Guam private schools facing reduced enrollment. Photo by Mar-Vic Cagurangan

For the Journal

Bracing for a decline in enrollment in the coming school year, private schools are under pressure to explore strategies to remain an economically sustainable business.

“We had some families pulling out during the last two months of the school year (April and May) due to financial reasons,” said Sister Maria Rosario Gaite, principal at Santa Barbara Catholic School in Dededo. “In light of the financial impact during this pandemic, we continued to reach out to the families by offering them payment plans to assist them in their time of need.

Sister Maria Rosario Gaite

Santa Barbara at least has managed to retain its staff through the forgivable loan it obtained from the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Payroll Protection Program.

Fundraisers for scholarship programs could face challenge as well and the school’s ability to award grants in the coming school year is likely to be adversely affected.

“We actually have several families who are recipients of tuition assistance and scholarship,” Gaite said.

 Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic School is also expecting a possible drop in enrollment in the coming school year, Board Chairman Michael Phillips said.

Enrollment at Mount Carmel varies “between a low of 325 and a high of 535” and the economy is usually the main factor in this fluctuation, Phillips said. “It also involves communicating to parents the quality of education the school offers,” he added.

Besides the cash streams from tuition, MCS also relies on community donations, school fairs and other fundraisers such as the annual golf tournament to keep the school operation afloat and retain its ability to provide scholarship grants to high achievers and students from low-income families.

Despite the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, Phillips found a silver lining.

Gov. Lourdes A. Leon Guerrero’s public health emergency declaration on March 15, which mandated the closure of all private and public establishments including schools accelerated the implementation of Mount Carmel’s online learning program, Phillips said. The virtual education system at Mount Carmel had been in the works six weeks prior to the announcement of school closures.

“We have been slowly doing that, so when the pandemic hit, we were almost totally prepared without even planning,” Philips said. “The governor announced the school closures on Monday and by Friday we were online.”

He said Mount Carmel’s permanent platform is the same as the ones used by the University of Guam and Guam Community College. “The person who did that work for UOG and GCC is the same person who did that work for us. So, we are fortunate,” Phillips said.

Philips said the coronavirus crisis was a blessing in disguise as it has forced the advancement of Mount Carmel’s goal to engage parents as partners in their children’s education by getting them support at home and facilitating direct communication through technology.

“That is our goal from the beginning,” Philips said. “This is year 2020 and this is the way people communicate now.”

The coronavirus crisis has pushed schools to use new apps such as Google Classroom and Zoom. However, it brings about a combination of awe and shock for some teachers and parents.

“As with other schools on island, the pandemic threw us off-guard, but we had to be pro-active and tried our best to mitigate disruption to student learning,” Gaite said. “We shifted to distance learning overnight by using Google Classroom, Zoom meetings, Dojos, Khan Academy, emails and other online learning platforms to reach out to our students.”

Despite the wonders of technology, Gaite said the school administrators recognize its limits. Not everybody is keen on distance learning, she added.

“Some parents were working full time and had difficulty adjusting to the ‘new normal,’” Gaite said. “So, we sought the support of our parents, especially with our elementary students. We regularly sent surveys to our parents and asked for their feedback so we could find the best combination of learning resources and techniques to teach our students from a distance. This pandemic has brought with it many difficulties, but it has also added value to our learning environment. While academics remained important, some of the activities, especially during video conferences, were also geared toward students’ social-emotional learning.”

Phillips said the “new normal” can be overwhelming for some parents and teachers.

“Like in everything else, it can be difficult to establish your understanding of how it works,” he said. “They all had a crash course on what’s supposed to be going on.

“Some parents went from zero to nine; other from zero to 10.”

Gaite said using technology will remain as Santa Barbara School’s contingency plan if returning to traditional education system is impossible when the school year reopens.

In June, she said the school conducted “a month-long extensive professional development training with our faculty and staff on how to maximize the use of google classroom, presentation apps, movie-making, and other distance learning tools. We want to be prepared in case distance learning continues at the beginning of the school year, and/or if we will be using a hybrid schedule which is a combination of distance learning and in campus face-to-face classes,” she said.

While the pandemic has brought with it many difficulties, Gaite said it has also added value to the learning environment.

“While academics remained important, some of the activities, especially during video conferences, were also geared towards students’ social-emotional learning,” she said. “I believe most of our families were pleased and appreciated how we conducted distance learning … so we sought the support of our parents, especially with our elementary students.”

Overall, Gaite said, the pandemic tested the resilience and strength of the education system.

“Our teachers worked tirelessly amid their own challenges with the community quarantine,” she said. “They continued to research, discover, learn and transform new ideas into lessons to then share with one another and with our students. I couldn’t have asked for a better team of professionals with which to go through this crisis than our faculty and staff at SBCS. These challenges have shown our resiliency as a community. I am also grateful to our parents for their understanding, patience and support and for being our partners through it all.” mbj