Catholic schools in Illinois seek share of CARES Act educational relief funding

In a letter noting how Catholic schools in Illinois have been impacted after closing March 14 to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the school superintendents of the six Catholic dioceses in the state have asked that Gov. JB Pritzker remember nonpublic schools when emergency funding is being distributed.

Dated April 2 and sent electronically by the Catholic Conference of Illinois, the letter was addressed to Gov. JB Pritzker and Carmen Ayala, state superintendent of schools. It referenced the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act or CARES Act that was passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump.

The legislation offers support through both the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund and the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. The local education agencies (LEAs) that receive the funds must provide equitable services for private schools.

The six superintendents — including Dr. Sharon Weiss of the Diocese of Peoria — extended their gratitude to the federal government for recognizing the work done by Catholic schools and the adverse effects COVID-19 has had on that. They also thanked Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin for their leadership in making sure the benefits were included in the CARES Act.

“We rely now on your leadership to ensure the educational relief funding in the CARES Act is utilized as intended,” the superintendents told Gov. Pritzker and Ayala.

SIGNIFICANT PRESENCE

Their concern was prompted by an email sent March 31 by Ayala that did not mention private schools when provisions of the CARES Act were outlined for the LEAs.

“Obviously there are many provisions of the CARES Act and we do not expect one email to include all of them,” the superintendents said. “However, we do urge you and the state superintendent to help us educate LEAs as to their responsibilities to ensure all students and teachers are served.”

“We rely now on your leadership to ensure the educational relief funding in the CARES Act is utilized as intended.” — From April 2 letter to Gov. JB Pritzker sent by superintendents of the six Illinois Catholic dioceses

The superintendents reminded Gov. Pritzker and Ayala that the presence of Catholic schools in Illinois is significant, with approximately 130,000 students in 461 schools. In the Diocese of Peoria there are 10,208 students enrolled in 43 Catholic schools — 7,979 in the elementary grades and 2,229 in high school.

“We have been grateful for our partnership with various state agencies and are confident that we can continue to work positively together through the current COVID-19 response,” they said.

In addition to Weiss, the letter was signed by Dr. Jim Rigg of the Archdiocese of Chicago, Mike Kagan of the Diocese of Rockford, Brandi Borries of the Diocese of Springfield, Father John Belmonte of the Diocese of Joliet, and Jonathan Birdsong of the Diocese of Belleville.

DIFFICULT DECISIONS

The provision that has garnered much of the attention for the Office of Catholic Schools and the Office of Finance for the Diocese of Peoria is the Payroll Protection Plan, according to Weiss. This authorizes forgivable loans to small businesses to pay employees during the COVID-19 crisis.

The application process opened April 3.

The two diocesan offices have been working with the Catholic schools in central Illinois to review their budgets and see if anything can be done to decrease spending.

Weiss said they’ve also asked school administrators to make some hard decisions. Among them is laying off part-time staff so they can go on unemployment, with the hope of bringing them back as soon as the schools are allowed to reopen.

“They obviously have a commitment and a loyalty to their employees,” she said. “They know if school starts May 1 these people are coming back and they want them back. In the meantime, our overall function as the Office of Catholic Schools and the Office of Finance is just to make sure we can keep the doors open.”

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