Between the fall of 2019 to the fall of 2020, Catholic schools in the U.S. lost more than 111,000 students, including many from Massachusetts. It was the largest decline in nearly 50 years — larger than after both the clergy sex abuse scandal and the 2008 fincanical crisis.
But as public schools continued to remain virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic, families began looking at in-person options — many of which were parochial schools.
Now, some of those same schools told MassLive that they are not only keeping the students that came to them last year but they’re also continuing to add interested families to the point of full capacity classrooms and waitlists.
“Most of the families that have come to us, even though the public schools are going to be open, they’re planning to stay with us based on their experience with the schools,” said Daniel Baillargeon, superintendent for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield.
After the influx of students in private school in Massachusetts last fall, there was some concern across the state that the families that switched from public to private last year would switch back.
But from Springfield to Boston, families are staying.
“We always were concerned that as the tide came in last year that as we rolled into next year the tide would go out,” said Thomas Carroll, superintendent for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. “It’s still too early to tell for sure. But what we’re finding is virtually all of the people who came in last year are staying.”
St. Peter School in Cambridge has more than a 95% retention rate from families that came last year and are planning to return in the fall, Principal Patrick Boyden said.
Plus, there are even more families interested now.
Notre Dame Academy in Worcester saw the same results of increased interest from families last fall, even getting a handful of transfers in January, said Caitlin Lubelczyk, director of enrollment and marketing. And it’s not slowing down.
“This year, we’re projected to be even higher than last year,” she said. “We’ve always been a small school, but I think that people are really starting to realize the benefits of the small classroom size and just the tight-knit community.”
For Notre Dame, max capacity is at 300 students but with extra precautions due to the pandemic, they are capping enrollment closer to 225 students. The school already has more than 200 students for next year.
The same thing is being seen at other schools.
During the spring of last year, St. Peter’s had 26 new student applications. This year they have 130. Second, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh grade are also already full at St. Peter’s.
What waitlists mean
Many private schools in Massachusetts have been back in-person learning since the fall but that doesn’t mean they are fully open.
Baillargeon said schools in the Diocese of Springfield have had to lower capacity in some classrooms due to social distancing, especially in early childhood centers such as preschool and pre-kindergarten.
“But even moving to classrooms that are just ‘regular-sized,’ we still have waiting lists,” Baillargeon said.
There was a 26.2% decline in pre-kindergarten enrollment from 2019-2020 to 2020-2021 school years, according to data by the National Catholic Education Association.
“Prior to 2020-2021, pre-kindergarten enrollment had been trending slightly upwards across the nation,” the organization said. “Although demand for pre-kindergarten school options can’t be interpreted from this data, it is troubling that even in the midst of prioritization of in-person learning, many seats in Catholic schools were left unfilled.”
NCEA also said schools can’t assume this enrollment will “bounce-back” because “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.”
Melissa Earls at Academy Hill in Springfield, a private school in Springfield, said she’s seeing younger grades still have openings but classrooms are filling up in later grades.
“I think that the pandemic allowed some parents at the pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, grade one level to work from home. And so they were more inclined to be able to work with their students with their children through a curriculum,” she said. “But that ability wanes I think as the students get older, and the content or the instruction gets a little bit more complex or the students themselves get more complex.”
The decision for what each classroom can hold comes down to working with the local board of health and the teachers. Many of the schools in the Diocese of Springfield are large, Baillargeon said. But that doesn’t mean they will be putting a lot of students in the class.
“We’re not going to take more than the teachers are comfortable taking,” he said. “And that’s really the case in many of the schools right now. It’s not just COVID protocol space”
Principals, Baillargeon said, are calling each other to try to place as many students in schools as possible. If one has a full fourth grade, they’re working with families to find them a spot at another school.
“[Principals] really want families who want a Catholic education to be in a Catholic school,” he said. “So we are trying to forward those families on to another local Catholic school, if that’s possible.”
But there might be some additions throughout the next school year. As COVID restrictions begin opening up even more, the schools might be able to accept more students, Boyden said.
“I think there’s reason to be hopeful, and I think there’s also reason to know that there’s probably going to continue to be some things that we have to be careful and considerate about,” he said. “I don’t think September 2021′s going to be like September 2019, but hopefully it’s closer to that than September 2020.”
Another reason for waitlists is that families are staying put.
“It is catering to the heart, mind and soul of each child,” Boyden said. “We’ve met the threshold for the physical safety, and that’s why people got in the door. But we’ve done so much more than that and that’s why people are stay.”
“This is the first year in a while that we’re going to have a really robust waitlist for a lot of our grade levels,” he said. “We’re fully capped out in most of our grades already.”
And the families with students in-person at private schools are also the ones helping spread the word to friends with children in public school and might be feeling frustrated, Carroll said.
“A lot of the people that switched over, they obviously have a lot of friends in the public schools,” Carroll said. “They’ve watched what’s happened over the last year, which hasn’t been particularly impressive. And they’re not excited about sending their kids back.”
So, instead they come to Carroll asking if his schools are a better fit for their child.
“It’s incredibly important not to lose any year at any point,” Carroll said, adding that education “builds and builds and builds as you go along.”
“If you lose a year, then what do you do? You have to cover two years of information?” he asked. “It’s like somebody’s putting weights in your backpack. And every year after that the weights get heavier and heavier and heavier.”
Some parents have told Carroll that they’re realizing they should’ve made the switch sooner, he said.
“It’s not their fault,” he said. “But what’s happening with some of these parents is they now realize, the year’s not over and that this year is a total waste because they’re not being in-person instruction.”
Many of the families, Carroll said, might not have been families that previously considered Catholic school but it’s actually the school’s faith that is keeping them.
“We believe every child was created in the image and likeness of God. We simply refused to strand them, which is why when we were allowed to open we did reopen without any long conversations … We just knew the right thing to do. So we did it,” he said. “And people who are newly in our schools are seeing a sense of commitment, which is driven by our religious mission, and a sense of community.”
Even though private schools across the state reopened their doors for in-person learning at the start of last fall. It didn’t mean everyone was ready right away.
Some parents needed to build up trust before sending their children back to the classroom.
“Early on we provided a remote option to most of our families if they were nervous. Within a few months, many of those families felt that the school was safe and decided to come into the school full time,” Baillargeon said. “We still have a handful of families that are fully remote.”
The schools had to implement a number of safety measures, sometimes changing what the typical classroom looks like.
Beyond recommendations of three to six feet of social distancing, masks and more, teachers at Academy Hill got outside.
The school already had an amphitheater style classroom in the woods but it wasn’t used often until this year.
“The amphitheater space was used on occasion in years past. Most common for science classes,” Earls said. “But this year it was used for science, for math, everything.”
She said the ability to get outside was great this year. They even added additional tents for more space and created a rotating schedule for the outdoor classrooms.
“The kids, the teachers, love it,” she said. “Love it.”
Opening a new school
While the waitlists are filling up now, that wasn’t the case this time last year.
At that point, most of the Catholic schools in the state were worried about attendance last year. Still, St. John’s High School in Shrewsbury was looking to expand.
The school announced its plans in March 2019 that they were going to open a middle school for the 2020-2021 school year. Then the pandemic hit.
But that didn’t stop them.
“We started a middle school program this year, which was an interesting time to start a middle school program,” said Alex Zequeira headmaster of St. John’s High School. “And our middle school admissions is through the roof.”
The eighth grade program is already full for next year with a waitlist.
But once perspective families become interested, getting them through the door isn’t as easy as it once was. Schools have had to restrict the usual tours due to the pandemic.
Zequeira said they had some Zoom meetings and webinars “where we explored different aspects of life here at St John’s.” Then in March the school was finally able to allow tours — although they were much smaller than usual and only during times when all the students were in classrooms. They also hosted two tours on the weekends.
“We had people in all the buildings but it was a self guided tour,” he said. “We had QR codes in different places with videos that they could walk into that space, click the video, see that space in action, the way you normally would see during an open house.”
It wasn’t easy but Zequeira said they wouldn’t have announced they were opening a middle school if they didn’t think it would be successful.
Still, the school saw some influence from the overall increased interest in private schools due to the pandemic.
“We’ve exceeded some of our initial estimations on the interest in the middle school,” he said. “But it would have been a successful program even without the pandemic.”
The conversation for the middle school actually started in 2017, the same year Notre Dame Academy in Worcester opened its doors to middle school girls.
There was also a co-ed option but nothing strictly for boys in the area.
“Catholic schools have seen over the last decade, a pretty significant decline in middle school enrollment,” he said. “And we felt that we could offer something that would keep our young men in Catholic schools and really benefit from that opportunity.”
Notre Dame’s middle school, now about five years old, has been growing due to word of mouth but the pandemic has certainly increased interest, Lubelczyk said.
“The pandemic definitely played a role in parents wanting their daughters to be in person learning,” she said. “But I think that once they were here they realized what a great educational guide and what a great community we have here.”
The school, Lubelczyk said, will only be able to take about 25 more students until it’s full for the fall.
Transitioning students who are behind
Some students in Massachusetts haven’t been in a classroom since March 2020, leaving some of them behind where they’d typically be.
As some of those students enter private schools in the fall, the schools are having to come up with ways to help them.
Baillargeon said schools in the Diocese of Springfield will be using a testing method to help them track where students are. It’s something they have been talking about for years, he said, but now was the right time to implement it.
“We’re really in a place where this is something that we can do that’s going to assure that students who come to us who maybe are a little behind or maybe a little advanced, we have a good understanding where they are so that we can track their progress,” he said.
St. John’s is also doing a program to figure out where their students are academically.
“We’re working with families that are coming into St John’s we’re doing needs assessments of those students and families,” Zequeira said.
For them it’s a program that includes a series of questions to figure out the student’s history and current needs. From there, they’ll make recommendations for the summer or when classes start in the fall.
“We see a student full time at St John’s as an opportunity to undo some of the challenges that students have faced over the last year, year and a half,” he said. “We’re being very proactive with families through this program to make sure that we have as much information as possible so we can best serve those students.”
Earls said she’s also seeing a number of students who are behind but it’s not because they’re not smart.
“The recommendation would be for some work over the summer or remediation,” she said. “Not remediation because they’re not bright and they’re not ambitious but just because they haven’t been exposed to the content.”
Sometimes Earls is finding students need more than just extra summer work, and suggests repeating a grade due to the pandemic.
“Sometimes we accept students on the condition they repeat the previous grade level,” she said. “We are finding that students are behind current grade level,”
But it’s not exactly as it seems.
“We call it a post-grad year,” she said. But it’s far more advanced than if they had stayed in their public school and repeated the grade there.
“So these students coming in to do our post-grad year are not really repeating because it’s new content for them,” Earls said.
This eighth grade class might include geometry all the way up to algebra 2, something some students don’t take until junior year of high school.
Arlington Catholic High School created a program to bridge the gap for public school eighth-graders who fell behind due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the students in the program have technically completed their eighth-grade year, the Boston Catholic school isn’t trying to reteach them math or reading they already know but fill in the gaps they missed. In fact, most of their learning isn’t actually about the typical subjects.
“We’re really looking to develop their skills and study methods in how to read critically, pay attention, take notes in the class,” Vice Principal Nathaniel Naughton said. “Things that they haven’t had to do that they would normally build on in the seventh and eighth grade.”
This isn’t over
Superintendents and principles aren’t expecting applications to slow down anytime soon.
Multiple schools told MassLive they expect families to continue inquiring about enrollment through the summer.
Typically at Notre Dame, the deadline for admissions is in December with final acceptance and final enrollment in February.
“But this year, it’s been very much rolling admission until we can’t accept anymore,” Lubelczyk said.
They’ve even had a few students who decided to leave at one point wanting to return.
For families on the fence, it’s better to decide sooner rather than later — and it’s not just about waiting lists.
“We start teaching Latin and Classics in fourth grade, for example,” Earls said. “So the longer they wait, the less time there is for them to catch up.”
“Introducing Latin early on gives our students a strong foundation for future study in language and equips their minds to take on challenging subjects,” the website states.
By middle school, students use Latin via Ovid, “which uses adapted versions of the myths in Ovid’s Metamorphoses to teach the grammar of Latin.” “As they progress, they are able to appreciate more and more of Ovid’s original work and read some excerpts from other authors,” the website continues.
By sixth grade, they are prepared to take the National Latin Exam.
The school offers a summer program in June. From there, they suggest one-on-one tutors.
In the end, though, every child deserves free and appropriate access to quality education. And with continued challenges due to the pandemic, it’ll be important for parents to advocate for their children whether it’s switching to another school, getting them a tutor or just being patient with them, Earls said.
“My advice to parents is to be patient, be strong, be good advocates for your children, be vigilant about what they’re doing in class,” she said. “And we will all get through the next year.”
From the school’s perspective, however, it’s about doing their best to meet students where they are.
“I think every student has been impacted by the pandemic whether they’ve been in person or not,” Zequeira said. “We are working with incoming families because we recognize that there’s been a trauma related to this pandemic for our students.”