Catholic Schools, Home Schooling Retain Pandemic Enrollment
Enrollment data reveals more families tried new educational options during height of COVID — and haven’t left.
When Damon and Lauren Paczkowski discovered that their two children’s public elementary school would only be open for half days in the fall of 2020, they started researching Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey, for one that would offer full-day instruction.
But the need for a regular school day wasn’t the couples’ only reason, said Lauren, 43, a speech therapist who works at a Newark-area public school.
As she and her husband worked from home in Cranford, New Jersey, during the COVID lockdown and could more closely oversee their then-fifth-grade daughter and first-grade son’s schoolwork, they became aware of their children’s true academic abilities. They realized that neither of their kids was being sufficiently challenged at their public school, nor were their needs being met, Lauren said.
They were on waiting lists with other families seeking education alternatives at several Catholic schools and found out their first-choice school, Holy Trinity School in Westfield, New Jersey, had openings the day before classes started.
So the Paczkowskis, who are Catholic, decided to try it until the end of the year. A couple of months later, their children’s progress convinced them to stay, Lauren said.
“My children are going to come out of this school so academically ahead, so ready to face life, willing to be independent,” she said. “They can problem-solve, look at an issue and be able to figure out stuff on their own, and I love it. That’s everything that I’ve ever wished for, for my children.”
As the Paczkowskis and others had pandemic or other reasons for seeking education alternatives or they waited to enroll their pre-K or kindergarten-age children, U.S. public-school enrollment dropped by 1.3 million students to 49.5 million during the two years from the fall 2019 to fall 2021 — with the largest decline in the fall of 2020, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the primary federal entity for collecting and analyzing data related to U.S. education.
During the same time period, many Catholic schools and home-schooling providers saw significant increases that have leveled off as some families returned to public school but that still represent more stable increases over pre-pandemic enrollment.
The pandemic boost didn’t completely offset an overall Catholic-school enrollment decline in the past decade, due in part to declining birthrates, population shifts and tuition-affordability issues for some families, experts say.
But Catholic-school enrollment has grown.
“Almost three years after the start of the COVID-19 health crisis, Catholic schools have continued the legacy that has characterized Catholic education: academic excellence, a strong partnership with parents, a sense of community and a faith-filled education for students nationwide. In the 2022-2023 school year, Catholic school enrollment has grown (0.3%) to 1,693,493 students in 5,920 schools, continuing the two-year trend of increasing Catholic school enrollment across the nation,” the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) stated in a Feb. 6 data release.
In addition, U.S. Catholic elementary and secondary school enrollment rose by 3.8% from the 2020-21 to the 2021-22 school year, according to Annie Smith, vice president of research and data at the NCEA, a Catholic-school education professional organization based in Leesburg, Virginia.
Catholic schools “have welcomed families and supported students’ academic, emotional and spiritual growth,” she said. “Recent assessment data is one indicator of how Catholic schools supported students throughout the pandemic. This has enabled them to retain new families and stabilize enrollment.”
Roughly 8% of U.S. households with at least one school-age child are home schooling, down from 11% in 2021, said Steven Duvall, home-school research director for the Purcellville, Virginia-based Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), which offers legal representation to home-schooling families.
The home-school data is taken from the U.S. Census Bureau’s now-monthly “Household Pulse Survey” of roughly 33 million U.S. households. Even with the decrease, about two and a half times more families are home schooling than before the pandemic, he said.
“Hopefully we’ll see the numbers maintain at high levels because many parents will have discovered just how powerful home schooling is, even though it was thrust upon them, and they weren’t ready for it,” Duvall said.
By March 2020, Tony and Leona Hernandez had decided they would home-school their eldest son, Max, the following fall, but they started early when the Catholic school in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he attended kindergarten closed during the COVID lockdown, said Leona, 36, who has three other children — including one whose birth is expected in early May.
The decision to home school wasn’t easy, as the couple loved many things about their son’s school but ultimately concluded that teaching him and his siblings at home would be best for the family, she told the Register: “Once we decided we would try [home schooling] for at least a solid year, that’s when the shutdowns happened.”
Home schooling gave the family flexibility to travel together during the pandemic, as Leona, an ICU nurse, accepted several temporary nursing contracts around the country.
The Hernandez family moved permanently from Minnesota to near Naples, Florida, in 2021, partly because they thought the Land of 10,000 Lakes’ handling of the pandemic, especially the impact on public-school children, created a bad environment for their kids, Leona said. The couple is writing a book about their pandemic experiences.
Three years after starting home schooling, the couple annually reevaluates the decision to continue with their sons, now in third and first grades, and their daughter, who is 4 years old. Home schooling is sometimes hard, Leona admitted, but she added that it gives the family more time together, as well as opportunities for activities in the community and for gathering with other families.
Variable Pre-K and Kindergarten Enrollment
The biggest fluctuations in public-school enrollment during the pandemic were seen in pre-K and kindergarten, said Ross Santy, associate commissioner of NCES’ administrative data division. Enrollment in first through seventh grades also declined during the same period, while high-school enrollment was more stable, he said.
“Certainly we can speculate as well as anybody else that families with young kids were probably more nervous about school environments than others and especially the impacts of virtual education,” said Santy, noting that his division doesn’t study factors affecting enrollment changes. “If you’re already started in your education, that’s sort of one decision about going in and continuing virtual versus if you haven’t started.”
The Feb. 6 NCEA data found, “Pre-kindergarten enrollment is 1.0% higher than before the pandemic.”
A rebound in the number of pre-K students was a big reason enrollment in the Newark archdiocesan Catholic schools increased over the 2020-2021 school year following a 2% decline overall during the pandemic, said Superintendent Barbara Dolan. With the uncertainty of the pandemic during that school year, working parents wanted their pre-K children in school but were also concerned about them getting infected in a classroom, she said.
Some parents of younger children delayed school entry, but those with upper-elementary students who were required to be in school may have enrolled them in private school or home schooling, said Veronique Irwin, a member of the NCES annual reports staff, who also noted that NCES hasn’t yet released data on private and home schooling past 2019.
Parents of preschoolers and children who’ve never attended public schools will be the subjects of a 2024 HSLDA survey because Duvall said many have told him they disapprove of public-school instruction and don’t plan to enroll their children there.
“From what I’m hearing, I get the feeling we’re going to see a pretty high rate of parents who are fairly disturbed about what’s being taught; and if that happens, this level of new sustained growth will at least be maintained and maybe even continue to grow,” he said.
Parents may have been a little more cautious about moving into home schooling with their high-school-age children than their younger ones, said Draper Warren, admissions director at Seton Home Study School, a Front-Royal, Virginia-based accredited Catholic private pre-K-to-12 distance school and Catholic materials publisher.
Following a 2021 pandemic surge, Seton still has about 3,500 more students enrolled than before the pandemic, he said. High-school numbers rose slightly, but the biggest increases were in pre-K through third grade, Warren said.
“We had that great increase, and then we saw the drop-off,” he said. “The drop-offs were in all the same grade levels that we saw the increase. Basically, the numbers that we lost were in that pre-K-to-grade 3 category where we had seen the biggest COVID increases.”
Warren said he expects post-pandemic enrollment to stabilize but continue increasing more slowly, as it did before the pandemic.
Longer-Term Enrollment Concerns
Before the pandemic, public-school enrollment was declining in lower grades, consistent with NCES projections of an overall reduction in the school-age population, Irwin said. “We’ve already started seeing that in younger grades, and that will kind of move its way through our school-age students.”
Enrollment also decreased at Catholic schools in the decade before the pandemic; since 2011, it has fallen almost 17%, Smith said.
Data that NCEA is still analyzing indicates that enrollment changes appear to match population shifts, she said. “If we built 5,920 Catholic schools today, they’d be in different locations than the ones built in the early 1900s because neighborhoods are different,” Smith said.
Enrollment also has been affected by tuition affordability, especially in areas where school choice isn’t an option, she said.
The new data released Feb. 6 found, “Although 60 of the 175 Catholic school dioceses saw an increase of 1.0% or greater in enrollment since 2019-2020, nationwide Catholic school enrollment is still 2.6% lower than pre-pandemic levels. In the past three years, Catholic schools have innovated in order to meet the needs of their communities and attracted and retained new students to stabilize or increase their enrollment. They will need to continue to support their students and communities in the future to maintain the positive enrollment trend.”
The movement of families to less populated areas has impacted the Newark archdiocesan Catholic schools, Dolan said. At the end of the 2020-21 school year, the archdiocese closed eight of its schools that had significant enrollment decline, she said. “The pandemic really put us in a position where we had to make some difficult decisions, so we had to consolidate some of our school communities.”
Despite other enrollment challenges, principals of archdiocesan schools are conscious of the families who enrolled in their schools during the pandemic and have decided to stay because they appreciate all that sets Catholic schools apart, including faith formation and the faith community, Dolan said.
“They realized [that] by having these new families who came, who may not have experienced Catholic-school education before, it helped them to not take for granted some of the things that we are about.”
As parents who discovered Catholic schools during the pandemic and now want their kids to continue there, the Paczkowskis recognize that the quality of instruction at Holy Trinity School is just one reason their children are thriving, Lauren said.
Another factor in their success, she added, is the school’s close community of students, committed parents, and faculty and administrators who know each family by name: “You feel like you’re part of a family.”
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