And it may reflect a nationwide trend. After years of declining enrollments and school closings, Catholic schools in Massachusetts and several other states saw a rebound this year, according to news reports.
Last year, as public schools reopened to remote and hybrid learning models, Catholic schools in the area made a commitment to full-time, in-person classes, although requiring students and staff to practice social distancing and wear face masks while indoors.
This year, Catholic schools continued with the face mask policy as the state’s public schools reopened in September under similar rules. Citing the recent rise in COVID-19 cases among children, the diocese announced before the beginning of the school year that face masks would be required for all staff and students 5 and older, regardless of vaccination status, in all 15 elementary and four high schools in the diocese.
Specific school enrollment data, and overall enrollment in the diocese, is internal data that the diocese does not share with outside organizations, Duxbury wrote in an email.
However, overall enrollment in the diocese is up is up 1.45% from last year, and 2.7% for elementary schools over last year she said.
“The community that our schools offer are much more appreciated as a result of the pandemic,” Duxbury said, and the pandemic “has surfaced weaknesses within the public school systems.”
The local numbers are a reversal of a long trend in Catholic education nationwide. Earlier this year, the National Catholic Reporter newspaper said that U.S. Catholic school enrollment decreased by 6.4%, or more than 111,000 students, between fall of 2019 and the beginning of the 2020 school year.
St. Mary-Sacred Heart School in North Attleboro.
But more recent reporting indicates a sharp U-turn for those numbers. The Springfield Diocese reported a 13% increase in enrollment this year. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston lost more than 5,000 students the summer after the pandemic started, a report on the MassLive website said, and officials were looking at the possibility of having to close 24 of its schools. At the start of the 2020-2021 school year, 4,000 new students had enrolled. Similar stories cropped up in news reports around the U.S. this fall.
While the Fall River Diocese does not release enrollment numbers for either individual schools or its school system as a whole, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education does publish figures for private schools on its website.
Education at parochial schools represents a significant financial commitment from parents. Tuition at the area’s Catholic elementary schools — for parish members — can range from $5,300 to nearly $7,000 per year. Tuition at Feehan, a four-year, coeducational school with a college prep curriculum, is listed at $12,900 for the current school year. However, financial aid is available to families, according to the diocese website and the sites at individual schools.
This year, the Fall River Diocese is launching a “Did You Know” campaign that highlights the quality of Catholic schools and teachers.
Catholic schools “provide state-of-the-art special education programs” the campaign says, something that’s not widely understood by the general public. Although 90% of the Catholic schools in the diocese provide special education supports, most families are still unaware of this option.
“Our schools have made huge investments financially to fully commit to serving students with learning differences,” says Daniel S. Roy, superintendent of Catholic schools.
The campaign also points out that the vast majority of Catholic school teachers are certified by the state of Massachusetts (or the equivalent) with an average of 10 years of teaching experience.