Enrollment at Catholic elementary schools was down 8.1% in 2020-2021, compared to a decrease of 2.5% Catholic secondary schools. The enrollment figures for secondary schools decreased the same amount in 2020-2021 compared to the 2019-2020 school year, but Catholic elementary schools lost nearly 5% more students this academic year than last year.
The drop in enrollment amid the COVID-19 pandemic far outpaces the declines that followed the Church's 2002 clergy sex abuse crisis and the 2008 financial crisis.
Enrollment at Catholic schools dropped by 2.7% in 2003, at the height of the clerical sex abuse scandal, and by 3.5% in 2008, during the economic downturn. The NCEA does not list the reasons why students leave schools, but instead monitors total enrollment figures.
In addition, the closure of Catholic schools disproportionately affected lower-income students of color living in urban areas, the report found.
"In many cases, these underserved groups were over twice as likely to have their Catholic schools close compared to both all school closures and all communities served by Catholic schools," the NCEA said.
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This "erasure of Catholic schools" nationwide, the report added, especially in "underserved communities, amounts to a disruptive divestment of social capital and pathways of opportunity for all families."
"It also has the added effect of decreasing the diversity of Catholic school communities that enriches all families regardless of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status or opportunity," the report said.
According to the NCEA, there are 4,812 Catholic elementary schools and 1,169 Catholic secondary schools nationwide, which collectively serve more than 1.6 million students.