The coronavirus pandemic has hastened the closure of private K-12 schools—especially Catholic ones—across the country, many of which were already struggling. But Protestant and evangelical schools are surviving by looking for new ways to attract students.
Sister Dale McDonald of the National Catholic Educational Association estimated that about 100 schools have folded in the past month or so. She said the number could double before fall.
The closures will displace thousands of students nationwide. The schools include tiny St. Anne Elementary in Fair Lawn, N.J.; athletic powerhouse Cristo Rey Newark High School in New Jersey; and Baltimore’s Institute of Notre Dame, a girls school that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., attended.
Parents and alumni of the Institute of Notre Dame said the school’s closing blindsided them. Last year’s valedictorian, Alexis Poindexter, told The Baltimore Sun that she wanted to call a beloved teacher and “cry and rant” after she heard the news. “I can’t believe they are closing,” said Poindexter, adding that her experience at the school made her a more kind and gentle person.
Founded in 1847, the historic institution experienced a 43 percent enrollment decline in the last five years and needed $5 million in critical facility repairs and another $34 million to bring the more than 100-year-old building up to modern standards.
Before the COVID-19 crisis accelerated some of the closures, many other Catholic schools already suffered from declining enrollment due to neighborhood changes and competition with enhanced public and private schools. In a heartfelt letter sent last month to families in the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J., Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin announced the closing of nine elementary schools and one high school.
“Every time a school closes, something irreplaceable is lost,” he wrote. “Our Catholic schools are much more than institutions. They are communities of faith and learning, as well as centers of prayer and service that build on the formation that is begun in families.” Tobin added that circumstances set the difficult decisions in motion before the pandemic.
With the national surge in pandemic-related job losses, many families simply can’t afford Catholic school tuition, which averages $5,000 annually during the elementary years and $11,000 for secondary school. Parishes that normally subsidize tuition for low-income students are strapped for cash due to a dip in tithing when stay-at-home orders canceled weekly Mass.
In contrast, reenrollment numbers at a majority of Protestant and evangelical schools are holding steady, according to Lynn Swaner of the Association of Christian Schools International. The organization conducted a survey in April of its more than 2,300 members in the United States and found even with all the financial and educational uncertainty of the pandemic, only a few schools indicated they might close permanently.
Swaner said most ACSI member schools are using the public health crisis to expand into virtual and hybrid instruction. While many public schools fumbled for weeks with the transition to distance learning, 80 percent of ACSI schools missed fewer than five days of instruction. Some even picked up new students along the way as families grew tired of waiting for their local public schools to provide lessons.
“The vast majority of our schools are looking at it and saying, ‘How does this actually create an opportunity for us to provide a Christian education and reach students that maybe we’ve never been able to reach before?’” Swaner said.
Meanwhile, friends and alumni are rallying around some of the closed Catholic schools, praying and petitioning school and church leaders for a change of heart. Administrators at the award-winning Academy of Our Lady Peace in New Providence, N.J., petitioned the Archdiocese of Newark to reconsider closing their school. The more than 1,200 signatures and nearly 500 comments they submitted proved persuasive, and church leaders reversed their decision, giving them back their beloved school.