What Outdoor Dining Can Teach Catholic Schools

Dining with a friend on a cold, rainy day, we walked into a nearly empty restaurant. The service and food were lovely. As we walked out, we noted that the outdoor seating capacity is probably equivalent to the indoor capacity. As we discussed a desire to come back on a day with better weather, we looked forward to trying the outdoor seating next time. My friend said, “I hope when all this is over, they keep this part.”

It occurred to me that as education as a whole has struggled during the pandemic, Catholic schools have had to pivot much like the small business owners and restaurants in order to provide services despite mandated closures. Big public school districts are certainly suffering too, but with more structures and resources in place, they have been insulated somewhat from some of the operational challenges Catholic schools have had to face. Like restaurants, they had to think and act fast in order to keep providing necessary services to the families in their community.

I know, I know…parents, teachers, friends, and educators, that distance learning has been difficult. I have seen you do the impossible. I know we all crave something normal. I know we want to deposit our darling children safely into schools with caring adults who will educate them and help make them better people. I know we want to do a good job teaching them, ministering to their families, building community, evangelizing, and remaining sustainable. But, when COVID ends (assuming it will someday) what are the things we will say, “I hope when all this is over, they keep this part” regarding online and hybrid learning?

I took the photo above as the inspiration for this article. When I think about the sustainability of Catholic schools, many of which whom were barely making it before, I think about how this restaurant couldn’t operate fully within its walls so they operated out of the walls. When schools and restaurants reopen safely, will there still be a desire for outdoor service? Can Catholic schools feasibly double their enrollment by offering out of the building education without buying more real estate or renovations? Can we figure out how to finally tap into families who have traditionally chosen homeschooling, families who want a Catholic education but can’t afford it, families who now want to be remote because their jobs no longer tie them down to a specific location?

How can Catholic schools adopt and co-op serving student needs by pooling resources and building capacity? What should we be investing in to do so? How do strategic planning and goal setting need to change to reflect this? Does anyone even know how to do it yet? What advantages do Catholic or private schools have that public schools are unable to meet? Once all schools are open, how will we keep the uptick in enrollment we had because we could open our doors when others couldn’t?

I submit for consideration that the answers to these questions do not fully exist within the field of education. Education needs to look outside of itself and at the industries that have struggled and those who have succeeded. How do we become recession-proof? How do we take advantage of the agility we could have if we choose to use it? What are the trends that people will still want after the world is safe again? What role will choice and convenience play in the educational decisions of families?

Like my friend, I hope they keep the outdoor seating. I don’t think restaurants as a concept will cease to exist anymore than I think Catholic schools will cease to exist because of these challenges. We will be forever changed by these times. There will be an evolution in education and Catholic schools are uniquely positioned to lead the way in what innovation and best practice look like. We won’t have to compete with “free” schools because our offerings will exceed what our counterparts can offer not because they are bad, but because we are niche, specialized, flexible, and here to serve the specific and ever-changing needs of families.

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