Catholic schools have faced tough times for years, but the pace of closures is accelerating dramatically amid economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, sparking heartbreak and anger in scores of affected communities.
“It’s not a pretty picture right now,” said Sister Dale McDonald, public policy director of the National Catholic Educational Association, which says about 100 schools have announced in recent weeks that they won’t reopen this fall. McDonald fears that number could more than double in the coming months.
Most of the closures are occurring at the elementary level, but also on the list are a number of venerable and beloved high schools including some that produced some famous alumni.
The Institute of Notre Dame, a girls’ school in Baltimore founded in 1847, is due to close on June 30, to the dismay of alumnae like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Immaculate Conception Cathedral School of Memphis, Tennessee, another girls’ institution, is also shutting down after 98 years; it’s where Priscilla Beaulieu finished her senior year while dating husband-to-be Elvis Presley.
Closures in New Jersey include Hammonton’s St. Joseph High School, which has won more than 20 state football championships, and Cristo Rey high school in Newark, which was highly praised for its work helping students from low-income families go to college. Founded in 2007, Cristo Rey says every one of its graduates from the last 10 years had been accepted at colleges.
This year’s closures will reduce the number of Catholic K-12 schools in the United States to about 6,000, down from more than 11,000 in 1970, according to the Catholic education association. Overall enrolment has plummeted from more than 5 million in the 1960s to about 1.7 million now.
“The loss of Catholic schools is a loss to America,” said Mary Pat Donoghue, executive director of the Catholic Education office of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
She said the impact would be particularly severe in low-income inner city neighbourhoods, generally populated mostly by blacks and Hispanics,
“No one in the non-public school sector has done better there than Catholic schools,” she said.
The long-term enrolment decline has resulted from demographic changes, parents’ difficulty affording tuition and competition from public and other private schools.
Factors related to the pandemic have only aggravated the problems.