Catholic Schools Persist During Pandemic

Economics and Enrollment Continue to Be Big Challenges

Catholic Schools Persist During Pandemic
Students at St. John Vianney School, Northlake, Illinois
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Catholic Schools Persist during the coronavirus pandemic despite enrollment and economic challenges.

Faced with a situation that nobody trained for (like almost every segment of society) Catholic schools have offered in-person learning at a greater pace than public schools. Like other private schools, they have offered an attractive option to public schools offering only remote learning, often with teacher unions opposing in-person learning until all students and teachers are vaccinated and the war against the pandemic is declared a victory.

It might appear that Catholic schools would see an increase in enrollment from families who want their children in a bricks-and-mortar classroom with a dedicated teacher. Unfortunately, the pandemic brings with it unemployment and economic stress that makes it difficult for many families — especially the poorest and most vulnerable — to afford tuition at a private school, Catholic or otherwise.

A report released in February by the National Catholic School Association revealed a good news/bad news story for Catholic schools in the pandemic world. Following are the key points from the report:

  • Catholic school enrollment across the nation dropped 6.4 percent from the previous
    academic year – the largest single-year decline in nearly 50 years.
  • Catholic school closures in 2019-2020 disproportionately impacted underserved
    families and non-Catholic families.
  • Catholic elementary schools bore the brunt of the impact on school enrollment,
    with an 8.1 percent decrease in enrollment from the previous academic year.
  • Pre-Kindergarten enrollment declined by 26.6 percent from 2019-2020 to 2020-2021.
  • Only 8 of the 174 Catholic school dioceses saw an increase of 1 percent or more in student enrollment.
  • More information is needed to determine the impact of state-funded parental choice programs on enrollment trends.
  • More schools reported having students on an enrollment waitlist than in prior years.
  • Catholic school staffing did not decline at a rate proportional to the overall enrollment decline.
  • Over 200 Catholic schools closed or consolidated at the end of 2019-2020
    school year.

Sadly, some of the nation’s largest dioceses experienced significant enrollment drops: Los Angeles, 12.3 percent; Chicago, 8.2 percent; New York, 11.1 percent.

On the positive side, a few dioceses enjoyed an enrollment increase, including Los Vegas, 5.5 percent; Greensburg, 4.9 percent; Bismarck, 3.3 percent.

Catholic Schools Persist
Kathy P. Mears – NCEA

To get a sense of the situation for Catholic schools at this time, Exaudi asked Kathy P. Mears, Interim President/CEO of the National Catholic Education Association to respond to a few questions. Her answers reflect the ups and downs of the current world of Catholic education while offering hope for a bright future.

Exaudi: How have Catholic schools weathered the storm of the pandemic? 

Mears: Our schools are doing well. They are meeting the needs of students by providing both in-person and virtual instruction.  We also have seen an increase in enrollment since mid-September.

Exaudi: What has been the general approach to remote learning vs. in-person? 

Mears: Approximately 90 percent of our schools are offering in-person and/or hybrid instruction to our students.  Approximately 10 percent of our schools are only offering virtual instruction.

Exaudi: How many Catholic schools have closed as a result of the pandemic? 

Mears: We do not have a definite number. We know that 233 schools closed or consolidated, and we would assume that many of those closures are due to Covid, but we do not know the exact number.

Exaudi: What has been the impact on Catholic school enrollment?  

Mears: Enrollment has declined, but the satisfaction from parents who have enrolled their students in Catholic schools for the first time is very high.

Exaudi: Have we seen an influx of students from remote-learning public schools to in-person learning Catholic schools?  

Mears: Yes.  That is what is fueling the increase in enrollment since mid-September.

Exaudi: Can you project the situation in the fall… will we be fully open again? 

Mears: We do not have a crystal ball, but we anticipate being fully open for in-person instruction.  We also believe that many schools will also continue to offer virtual options.

Exaudi: Had the pandemic made the future of Catholic schools brighter – or created a greater threat?  

Mears: We are optimistic.  We believe that because parent satisfaction is high, that we will be able to stabilize enrollment.  We are also happy to report that more states are implementing parental choice programs and we believe that will have a positive impact on Catholic schools.

Exaudi: How have teachers held up under the circumstances?  

Mears: Our teachers and principals have been outstanding.  They are tired from the intensity of this year and physically, teaching with a mask on is more difficult.  Yet, they persist in offering quality Catholic education to our students and their families.



Jim Fair has spent the past two decades as a communicator for Catholic organizations. He is a convert to the Catholic faith and is grateful to his wife, Charmaine, for her continuing efforts to save his soul. They have a son and daughter, both happily married, and four grandchildren. Before devoting his life full-time to things Catholic, Jim enjoyed a 23-year career in various communications roles for large corporations. Before that, he worked as a newspaper reporter, photographer, and editor. He has served as president of the Chicago Public Relations Forum, chairman of the American Petroleum Institute General Committee on Communications, and a fellow of Greater Leadership Chicago. He was a member of the founding committee of the chemical industry’s Responsible Care Program. Jim is an active member of St. John Vianney Parish in Northlake, Illinois, where he chairs the finance council.
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