For the first time in the past nine years, Catholic school enrollment throughout the state increased, with 177 more students enrolled for the 2021-22 school year, totaling 6,320.
The Catholic Schools Office instituted a mandatory mask mandate for elementary schools, given that those 11 and younger are not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. Other safety guidelines, including increased sanitation practices and social distancing, also have been followed since the pandemic began. Though not required by the diocese to mandate masks, all Catholic high schools required masks at the beginning of the school year.
Marguerite Olberts, associate superintendent for marketing with the diocesan Catholic Schools Office, said while the schools office has received both negative and positive feedback regarding mask wearing, she cannot directly correlate the increase in enrollment to the mandate.
“However, just hearing back from some of the principals, they indicated that they have gained some families, because of the mask mandate, or families who were unsatisfied with the academics that they received last year (in public schools) and wanted to have stronger academics moving forward. And so they felt like they would make that shift,” Olberts said. “I think it could have something to do with the rise. The rise is pretty consistent throughout our schools. There were a few that dipped. But most of the ones that dipped were only by one or two. I do know some of the schools did report they lost some families because of the mask mandate.”
Drawing from reports collected from the schools as of Sept. 15 , there are:
689 students in pre-K, students from last school year
4,159, kindergarten-eighth graders
1,472, ninth-12th graders
Theresa Hall, superintendent of Catholic Schools, said 16 of the state’s 26 Catholic schools saw an increase, including St. Vincent de Paul in Rogers with 70, St. Paul in Pocahontas with 32 and St. John in Russellville, 20.
St. Joseph Elementary School in Conway lost about 10 students this year related to COVID-19, some because parents disagreed with the mask mandate and others opting for homeschool because of the continuing concerns about the virus.
“I am disappointed, but I’m also very thankful to those that stayed committed to Catholic education, supported us and trusted us,” said principal Courtney Pope. “On the flip side of that, as a mom, I realize it’s a scary time. We also have students of that number that were in a place where they could keep their students home and do a homeschool option.”
Pope also acknowledged it's not what anyone “prayed for and hoped for for the kiddos” this year, with the pandemic dragging on.
“I think the parents realize we are doing everything within our means to keep kids in school, in person, as many days as we can,” she added.
St. Joseph School in Fayetteville has seen a rise the past two years, something principal Jason Pohlmeier attributes to their COVID-19 policies. For the 2020-21 school year, they grew by 19 students. This year, they jumped by 18, with 358 students.
“I do think that’s a factor in it. I think how well we communicated last year with all our COVID issues made an impact on people,” Pohlmeier said, adding that some area public schools have relaxed their mask mandates in recent weeks.
Denise Troutman, who will celebrate 35 years as principal in 2022 at North Little Rock Catholic Academy, said her school rose by 14 students, bringing their enrollment to 191.
It’s a high for the school, which hasn’t seen an increase in about 13 years. Enrollment usually hovers around 180 for the preK to eighth-grade school. The increase also comes after 18 students graduated eighth grade in May.
“Absolutely,” Troutman said, emphasizing that the increase in enrollment was in part due to their strict COVID-19 policies. “Parents are so proud, they know we are taking serious care of their kids. We have our custodian who sanitizes every classroom every morning before everyone gets here” along with touchless hand sanitizers and (water) bottle fillers. Each student has two extra masks in their backpack at all times.”
The enrollment increase was seen throughout most grades, with one family bringing back three of their children after being in public schools for two years when virtual learning resulted in learning loss, Troutman said.
“You want to keep them safe and knowing this is the best possible way to keep them safe is to follow the COVID policies. When you believe it wholeheartedly, that’s what people will see,” Troutman said. “They know we’re going to be here, we’re going to be open, and we are going to be here for the kids.”
Bruce and Jean Heslip’s son Haden, 12, is a seventh-grade student at NLRCA and has attended the school his whole academic life. Because of his heart condition, they opted for virtual learning last year but felt comfortable sending him back this year because of the school’s mask mandate.
“I was thrilled that they did that and again this year, that they continued those safety precautions. You want to keep your kids as safe as possible, and I am all for masking up, and he is fully vaccinated at this point,” Jean Heslip said.
If the policies were not in place, “he probably would have been virtual again. You just look at the numbers of all those who have died and the huge impact and the long haulers; you might think you have a cold and who knows years down the road. I don’t know that I would have taken that risk with him.”
Olberts said the office continues to stand by the mask mandate after extensive consulting with local and national medical experts, keeping in mind the safety of the children and staff. It also allows the schools more flexibility to stay open, even if COVID-19 spreads in a school.
“The CDC guidance says that if both people are wearing their mask properly, they don't have to quarantine. If someone is vaccinated, they don't have to quarantine. So if most of our teachers are vaccinated, then if there is an exposure, they won't have to quarantine,” Olberts said. “If our kids are wearing masks, we are not having the quarantine levels, or the spread, that many of our public school counterparts are having, because they can't mandate masks or some of their school boards have chosen not to. It's keeping our classrooms open, and our schools open.”
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