In a snapshot of digital learning this year, Valley Catholic second grader Ruby Jones tackles some schoolwork while her mother, Mary Jones, assists JJ, in the fourth grade. Charlotte, a future Valiant, stays productive on a white board. Enrollment in Oregon Catholic schools has held steady, but officials are concerned what might develop over the summer. (Courtesy Valley Catholic School)
In a snapshot of digital learning this year, Valley Catholic second grader Ruby Jones tackles some schoolwork while her mother, Mary Jones, assists JJ, in the fourth grade. Charlotte, a future Valiant, stays productive on a white board. Enrollment in Oregon Catholic schools has held steady, but officials are concerned what might develop over the summer. (Courtesy Valley Catholic School)

While Catholic schools nationwide report a dip in enrollment for next fall because of the pandemic, the numbers are holding steady in western Oregon — so far.

“We know that could change over the summer,” said Jeannie Ray-Timoney, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Portland.

The fear nationwide is that record unemployment, combined with the possibility of a virus surge and more at-home learning, will cause parents to opt out of Catholic schools and tuition payments. 

Kathy Mears, interim president of the National Catholic Educational Association, reports that prospective enrollment is down in many dioceses. The reductions vary, with some dioceses reporting levels at only 10% of normal.

“We are aware that some families are taking a big hit and may not be able to afford to come back,” said Mears. “In a time like this, you prioritize the roof and food over Catholic school tuition. We get that.”

Many Catholic school administrators are scrambling to find more financial aid to entice families to stay.

“Catholic schools are a true gift to the nation,” said Mears. “Graduates go on to do great things. I worry if we don’t have some choices for parents.”

Mears said that Catholic school enrollment in western Oregon is in better shape than in many parts of the nation.  

Here, Ray-Timoney has urged principals to focus on helping families get through next year with plenty of tuition aid, figuring the pandemic is a once-in-a-lifetime event. “We are asking schools to dig deep,” Ray-Timoney said.

Some local schools have sought donations for COVID-19 funds so families that have lost jobs or hours get help. Ray-Timoney urges all families struggling with tuition to speak with the principal or pastor before cutting loose.

“We are getting requests for aid from families that have never made those requests,” said Kelli Clark, principal of St. Ignatius School in Southeast Portland. “No one is expressing an interest in leaving; they are expressing financial stress. They are also concerned about continuance of a model that heavily impacts parents’ ability to work, either remotely or outside of the home.”

Several families at St. Agatha School in Southeast Portland lost significant income because of pandemic closures. The school appealed to parents who are better off to help their peers. Those donations helped activate a matching grant from the Weston Foundation.

“While we are holding steady going into the fall, there is a very real concern about what the situation will look like in September,” said Chris Harris, principal at St. Agatha. “Several parents have expressed concern about continuing to afford tuition if their incomes continue to be impacted and/or if the schools remain closed. We will need more help if that happens.”

Harris is confident that if distance learning is needed in the fall, schools will be able to deliver it well, touching on academics, spirituality and emotional health.

“Despite finding ourselves in an educational setting far from ideal, parents have recognized the value of what our Catholic schools are providing and I think that has really helped to keep our community stable,” Harris said.  

Like all schools, St. Agatha has lost out on income because spring fundraisers had to be canceled or put online, an arrangement that has raised less than in-person events. Closures also have made it hard for schools to hold open houses and tours.

The rate at which Catholic schools nationwide are closing has increased somewhat, from about 90 per year over the last few decades to about 100 this year. Presentation Sister Dale McDonald, director of public policy and educational research for the NCEA, expects there may be more.

“The worry is the low- and moderate-income parents,” said Sister Dale. She fears a disastrous cycle in which families leave, and schools increase tuition to cover expenses, which in turn causes more departures.

Sister Dale said the situation now is far worse than during the Great Recession. “We are not sure when this is going to end, and what employment is going to look like,” she said. “It’s the uncertainty that gives people pause.”

While most closures nationwide come at small parish institutions, a few high schools have called it quits. But most of Oregon’s Catholic high schools appear set to weather the storm. 

The incoming freshman class at St. Mary’s Academy is 12% larger than the previous year’s. But school officials realize that could change before fall.

“We know that many families have been financially impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Jennifer Bash, director of admissions at the school for girls. “We reacted quickly in March to support our current families. By freezing tuition, extending financial aid deadlines, increasing the financial aid budget, and remaining flexible on registration fees, we maintained a healthy re-enrollment.” 

Bash said a strong digital learning program and student support helped families feel confident, too.  

“We are anticipating an impact from COVID-19,” said Suzanne Graf, who is about to retire as president of Marist High School in Eugene. “While it is well known that Marist was prepared to pivot quickly to remote learning, the uncertainty right now makes it difficult for families to commit to the cost of tuition. We are doing everything we can to help families return to Marist.”  

On paper, Central Catholic’s incoming freshman class will be larger than last fall’s. But Paul O’Malley, admissions director at the Southeast Portland school, said a more accurate count will come in July, when the first payments are due. O’Malley suspects the dire economy might prompt some families to withdraw.

Even with expected departures, enrollment will be close to expectations — about 800 students — O’Malley predicts.

edl@catholicsentinel.org

Katie Scott of the Sentinel contributed to this story.