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Catholic school enrollment has declined as a result of pandemic


Philippe Lissac | Godong

Zelda Caldwell - published on 02/08/21

A new report shows that current enrollment is 6.4% lower than the previous year.

When public schools remained shuttered this fall due to the pandemic, the media reported that some families then decided to enroll their children in parochial schools which offered in-person classes. While some heralded this turn of events as a boon for parochial education, a new report reveals some disturbing news about Catholic school enrollment in the United States.

TheNational Catholic Educational Association released highlights from its annual report that found that Catholic school enrollment across the U.S. declined by 6.4% from the previous year — the largest decline in 50 years.

According to the report, this decline was greater than that seen during the clergy abuse crisis (2003:-2.7%) and during the late 2000s economic crisis (2008:-3.5%).

Catholic elementary schools have been hardest hit, with an 8.1% decrease in enrollment since the previous academic year.Particularly troubling to the authors of the report was pre-Kindergarten enrollment, which declined by 26.6% . Forty percent of the net loss of 111,000 student to Catholic schools can be attributed to the decline in pre-Kindergarten enrollment.

“Prior to 2020-2021, pre-Kindergarten enrollment had been trending slightly upwards across the nation. In the wake of the pandemic, Catholic schools were among the first schools to open and many school leaders prioritized operating in-person for early childhood and primary school students,” reported the NCEA.

“It is troubling that even in the midst of prioritization of in-person learning, many seats in Catholic schools were left unfilled,” the report continued.

Recent school closures have contributed to the dip in enrollment. Last year 100 Catholic schools closed their doors reducing the number of Catholic schools in the U.S. to about 6,000, down from more than 11,000 in 1970. As we reported last year, Catholic school have seen a decrease in enrollment from about 5 million in the 1960s to 1.7 million students today.

The news does not bode well for Catholic schools, if past enrollment numbers are used as a predictor of the future.

The report concludes that, “Most importantly, a ‘bounce-back’ in enrollment is not assumed. There has been no evidence in NCEA’s historical research on Catholic school enrollment over the last 50 years that suggests positive and commensurate shifts in enrollment typically follow these negative shifts.”

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