Sacred Heart

Sacred Heart Catholic School in downtown Nogales.

More than a month into the 2020-2021 school year, students at nearly all schools across Santa Cruz County continue learning online, putting a strain on students, families and teachers. But a pair of private Catholic schools in the community are facing additional challenges in a year that’s been tough for educators of all stripes.

“It’s been hard, but at the same time, there’s nothing we can do” about the unexpected circumstances disrupting education in 2020, said Sandra Contreras, principal of Lourdes Catholic School in Nogales.

For one, both Lourdes and Sacred Heart Catholic schools serve a large number of students who, in normal times, live in Sonora and cross the border to attend classes in Arizona. The pandemic-related travel restrictions in effect along the U.S.-Mexico border complicated that routine beginning last spring, said Lourdes Principal Sandra Contreras.

Some students weren’t able to cross for their high school graduation at the end of last year, and others drove themselves across the border alone, unable to bring family members who couldn’t cross the border to the ceremony.

“That was really complicated and sad,” Contreras said.

The return to remote learning has brought its own challenges, though Contreras has had a little more success at getting her families to campus this fall.

For last year’s graduation, U.S. Customs and Border Protection didn’t honor a letter asking officers to allow students and relatives to cross for the ceremony, she said. But when it came time to pick up books for the 2020-2021 school year, border authorities did allow family members to cross with a letter from the school stating that they needed to gather learning materials. Lourdes sent the letter to approximately 80 families.

If the U.S. border is still closed to non-essential travel from Mexico when in-person schooling resumes, Contreras said, she’ll try the same strategy.

“I think that will be OK, it will be respected and allowed,” she said.

At Sacred Heart Catholic School in Nogales, Principal Roxanne Teran said parents used a similar letter to pick up books at the beginning of the year, though she hasn’t looked into getting special permissions that would help kids get across the border for in-person classes.

A total of 15 students at the school are Mexican citizens, she said. But that number doesn’t necessarily represent the number of students who cross the border for class, since some U.S. citizen students may live with family in Mexico.

(Some students also cross the border to attend the county’s public schools, though in proportionally smaller numbers than at the Catholic schools.)

Teran said she expects to move to a hybrid learning model at some point, but that date might not be soon, given the level of virus spread in the community. “You want to open, but at the same time you want to be very safe,” she said.

She added that students would still be allowed to continue with remote learning even once classrooms reopen: “When we open for our students, whether or not they attend is the parents’ decision.”

Enrollment down

Both Nogales Catholic schools also saw enrollment drop this year. That’s part of a long-term trend of declining enrollment at Catholic schools across the country, and a short-term hit that’s caused some Catholic schools in other cities to shut their doors for good this year.

In part, that’s because private education looks less appealing when classes are all online.

“Since it’s private and they’re paying tuition, it’s nicer for them to have their children in our classes,” Teran said. “Even though we’re providing the same information and the same structure, they might see it differently.”

She said approximately three families had pulled kids out of the school for reasons related to COVID-19 – either concerns about crossing the border or a lack of interest in the school’s online offerings.

The overall decline is bigger at Sacred Heart, which runs from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, this year’s enrollment is 138 students, down from about 165 at the beginning of last year, according to Teran.

Lourdes, which has classes from preschool to 12th grade, counts 247 students this year, down from about 300 last year, according to Contreras.

But Teran, who left A.J. Mitchell Elementary school last year and joined Sacred Heart with a mandate to turn around declining enrollment figures, said that she wasn’t disappointed with the numbers, all things considered.

“I had an impression that (the border travel restrictions and online classes) would impact us more than what they did, but they still did have an impact and they probably will continue to do so,” she said.

And even with a number of factors working against them this year, Contreras said the education she’s offering still has its attractions.

“The teachers know the students very well, they are small classes, teachers are willing to go the extra mile,” she said.

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