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Catholic educators hopeful for rebound of enrollment in fall


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John Burger - published on 06/30/21 - updated on 06/30/21

Schools suffered through the pandemic, but some found ways to increase their numbers.

It won’t be until September before Catholic schools officials have a clear picture, but the National Catholic Educational Association is hopeful that the 2021-2022 school year will see Catholic schools rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Because of the pandemic, Catholic schools in the United States saw their biggest one-year enrollment drop since the 1970s. More than 200 schools closed permanently, and enrollment at the 5,981 remaining schools fell by 6.4%, according to the NCEA.

Total enrollment was about 1.63 million, down from a peak of more than 5.2 million in the early 1960s, the Associated Press reported. 

The new CEO of the schools association, Lincoln Snyder, is “cautiously optimistic that many Catholic schools nationwide can slow or stop the enrollment decline in the coming year,” AP said. He’s encouraged by what he’s seen in his own diocese, Sacramento, where he just finished a term as superintendent of schools. In the northern California diocese, enrollment is up 3% from September 2019. That’s in spite of the fact that many families couldn’t afford the tuition because of economic difficulties during the pandemic. Even though they had to pull their children out of Catholic schools, other families “were attracted by the system’s educational strengths and its handling of the pandemic,” said the wire service.

“We had low infection rates… very few documented cases (of COVID-19) on site,” Snyder told AP. “We showed we could have kids in class and still be safe – and that seems to have been respected by parents.”

In-person education

In contrast to the national trend, there have been several bright spots in Catholic school enrollment. In-person education is what drew many parents to try to get their children into schools in the Diocese of San Diego. One high school, St. Augustine in North Park, had small groups of students taking turns in outdoor instruction, giving them more room for social distancing. With people concerned about the mental health effects of isolation during the pandemic, applications and transfer requests at St. Augustine were at an all-time high this past year.

It was not without a struggle, however, as the school first had to convince the state of California, through a lawsuit, to allow in-person education.

Schools throughout the Diocese of San Diego made similar efforts to stay open and ended up seeing a net increase in enrollment of at least 5% for the 2020-2021 academic year, said diocesan spokesman Kevin Eckery. In fact, enrollment could increase by 10% when schools open again in fall 2021, he said.

The Diocese of Springfield, Massachusetts, also benefited from maintaining in-person education throughout the pandemic lockdown, seeing a 5% increase in enrolment and looking forward to stronger numbers in the fall, assuming there won’t be as much need for social distancing. 

“New families chose our schools because they were open and in-person, and most are remaining with us because they found something special,” Superintendent of Schools Daniel Baillargeon said in a statement. 

In the Archdiocese of Boston, as in other parts of the country, online education will be maintained in a more permanent way, alongside in-person teaching. The archdiocese is launching a new Catholic school called Lumen Verum — Latin for “true light.” It will combine virtual learning and in-person experiences into what officials at the archdiocese call a “blended learning” experience. 

“There’s literally no other blended learning Catholic school in the country,” said Thomas Carroll, Superintendent for Schools for the archdiocese. “It’s different than all the other schools. If people want a more conventional bricks and mortar school we got a hundred of those…but we wanted to create something that didn’t exist.”

The school will kick off serving 25 students but eventually will be able to instruct some 400, Carroll said.

Carroll admitted that the approach won’t be for everyone. But he believes there are families who will find value in it, including those interested in a Catholic school who do not live near one. 

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