Eighteen months since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 to be a global pandemic, homeschooling programs and many Catholic schools have seen above-average enrollment numbers compared to years before the pandemic.
It’s not yet clear whether shifts in schooling preferences are here to stay, or whether they will eventually return to pre-pandemic levels. But for now, some homeschool organizations say their growth is striking.
Seton Home Study School, the largest Catholic primary and secondary homeschool program in the United States, has seen such a surge in enrollment that it recently had to double the size of its physical facility, where it prints the majority of the textbooks used in the curriculum.
Some 16,500 students are participating in the school’s curriculum this year, said Draper Warren, director of admissions for Seton Home Study School. That’s fewer than the 20,000 students enrolled in 2020 - a record-breaking statistic at the height of the coronavirus pandemic - but still an increase of more than 4,500 students from previous years.
Warren believes much of the ongoing attraction to homeschooling can be attributed to “latent interest.”
“Anecdotally, I heard from so many families that they had been thinking about homeschooling for years,” he told The Pillar. “Homeschooling is such a significant lifestyle change for some families, that even though many wanted to homeschool before, the idea of that change had been too intimidating.”
“Covid took the decision out of their hands though, and after being prodded to take that scary first step, they were so happy with the results.”
Asked why the homeschool model appeals to many Catholic families, Warren pointed to several factors, including availability, particularly for those who do not live near a Catholic school, and adherence to Church teachings.
Noting that “most of [Seton’s] new students” come from public schools or “secular” education backgrounds rather than diocesan or parochial schools, Warren said that the school’s total annual fees―$900 for the high school curriculum, and $550 for elementary school―make their program far more accessible for many families than most private schools. Additionally, Seton’s commitment to “teaching in accord with the Magisterium of the Church” and their use of proprietary Catholic teaching materials appeal to families looking for a traditional Catholic education for their children, Warren said.
Flexibility is another big draw for homeschooling, he added, particularly for traveling families, serious student athletes, and students with health challenges.
“Seton allows families to move at their own pace. If they need to take a week off to do something in the middle of the year, they can,” Warren said. “We don't use live online classrooms. If a student is struggling with a concept and needs more time to understand it, they can take as much time as they need. If they grasp a concept immediately, they can move ahead without having to wait for the rest of the class to catch up.”
Seton is not the only homeschooling program seeing an increase in interest. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that the number of homeschooling families in the United States doubled between spring and autumn 2020.
Catholic schools are not necessarily threatened by the rise of homeschooling, however. In fact, some Catholic schools are seeing climbing enrollment numbers themselves.
Margaret Kaplow, a spokeswoman for the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA), told The Pillar that in the early stages of the Covid pandemic, a “significant number” of Catholic schools were forced to close, largely due to “school financial issues” and job losses that impacted the ability of families to afford tuition costs.
But now, she said, the NCEA has seen a notable “uptick in enrollment” from families “looking for safe, in-person classes” for their children.
“Catholic schools were the industry leaders in opening safely across the country,” said Kaplow. “Catholic schools were open with safe, in-person classes at a rate of about 90%,” compared to about 60% of public schools.
Thomas Carroll, the superintendent of schools in the Archdiocese of Boston, told The Pillar that enrollment in archdiocesan schools was “on fire” this academic year.
The total number of students in schools operated by the Archdiocese of Boston has grown from a low of 26,832 in July 2020 to 32,517 for the 2021-2022 school year―a 21% increase that brings enrollment nearly back in line with pre-pandemic levels.
Carroll attributed the “big increases” in student matriculation to several factors, including archdiocesan schools’ “total alignment” with the Magisterium and the strong faith formation that they offer to students.
Additionally, some Boston schools, such as the new virtual Lumen Verum Academy, offer a more individualized curriculum better tailored to homeschoolers and non-traditional students who might otherwise choose a different venue for their education.
The trend is present in other areas of the country too. In the Diocese of Harrisburg, each of the diocese’s 36 schools saw an increase in student enrollment this academic year. Daniel Breen, the diocesan superintendent, told a local newspaper in July that school officials have had to hire new faculty and reorganize grade levels to accommodate the surge in students.
Mariana Nunez, director of enrollment and outreach for Catholic schools in the Diocese of Camden, told the Catholic Star Herald in an August interview that families re-enrolled their children in diocesan schools this school year at higher rates than in recent years.
Across the country, in the Diocese of San Diego, Catholic schools have seen similar increases in interest and student enrollment. According to diocesan spokesman Kevin Eckery, San Diego Catholic schools have experienced at least a 5% increase in student enrollment for the 2021-22 academic year from last year.
The diocese saw many of its schools remain open through much of the pandemic, including St. Augustine High School, which in August 2020 sued California Gov. Gavin Newsom to preserve in-person instruction.
Last October, the Archdiocese of Omaha reported a significant increase in homeschooling among Catholic families. Vickie Kauffold, the archdiocese’s Superintendent of Schools, told The Pillar that her office does not have official homeschool enrollment numbers for this academic year.
Nevertheless, the archdiocese is continuing to promote in-person Catholic schooling to families who might be considering other options. “Our marketing efforts will be working to highlight the good things that happen in our schools and draw attention to affordability through tuition assistance sources available in the Archdiocese,” stated Kauffold.
It’s hard to predict whether homeschooling growth will diminish over time, as pandemic anxiety diminishes.
But Warren is glad that so many families have had the opportunity to experience homeschooling over the last year and a half. He said many of Seton’s new families have very young students, and he suspects they will continue on the homeschooling route for the remainder of their primary and secondary education.
Warren maintained that homeschooling is an important way to fully impart the faith to younger generations.
He noted that the Seton homeschooling program includes the Catholic faith in all of its materials - from practicing handwriting by copying Scripture verses to learning grammar through stories of Catholic martyrs.
“Seton is absolutely committed to teaching in accord with the magisterium of the Church and we don't stop with a once a week religion class,” he said. “The Catholic faith is infused in all aspects of our curriculum.”