Pa. Private school enrollment plummets during COVID pandemic

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The Philadelphia-area Catholic school system offered elementary students the option of full-time, in-person attendance at the start of the year.

Before the start of the fall semester, many independent schools told Keystone Crossroads that they would give children the option of attending classes in person. Administrators hoped the added flexibility would satisfy parents and prevent an exodus of enrollment.

Some speculated families would leave the public system and sign up, at least temporarily, to take advantage of in-person offers.

Gary Niels, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Independent Schools, said some of the larger and more affluent private schools have added students. But the smaller schools in his association bled enrollment, accelerating a trend that began before the pandemic.

“The little schools did their best,” Niels said. “But they didn’t quite have the resources.”

In many cases, private schools were not offering five days a week of full-time instruction at the start of the 2020-21 school year. Niels thinks parents didn’t want to spend money on a private school if their children didn’t fully benefit from it. Combine that with the economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic, and Niels thinks some families have decided to pocket their tuition.

Among the roughly 110 schools in the Pennsylvania Association of Independent Schools, enrollment fell 4.1% in 2020-21, Niels said. Unlike the decline in kindergarten in public schools, the decline in private school attendance in Pennsylvania was more evenly distributed across grades, with the largest being among tenth graders.

Now the question is whether some of those families will return as the pandemic subsides and schools fully reopen.

“We’re all a bit on the edge of our seats waiting to see what happens next,” Niels said.

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