Lingering Pandemic Learning Loss? Try Catholic Schools

Written by John Galvan, Director of Assessments, NCEA.
On May 5, 2023, the World Health Organization declared that the COVID-19 pandemic “no longer constitutes a public health emergency of international concern.” For those of us who work in the educational sector, that years-long stretch was a heavy lift. We all needed to see that page finally turned from March 2020. The pandemic interrupted learning both in and beyond the classroom. Social-emotional intelligence, civility, respect and discourse seemed to regress for kids and adults alike. Not coincidentally, these are also underlying characteristics of an effective school climate where learning is maximized. Our Catholic schools emerged as a success story in an otherwise nightmarish episode in American history.
The interruption of learning (not to mention church and school rituals) caused by the pandemic has had a lasting effect. Truancy remains a concern in public education. In fall 2020, fewer than one-fourth of students nationwide were back in classrooms five days a week; 57 percent were learning remotely full-time. At one point in December 2020, the New York Times suggested that as many as six percent of public school students nationwide were not attending school at all. By contrast, fully 92 percent of Catholic schools were open for full-time in-person instruction or “hybrid” learning at the start of 2021.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress Report (NAEP – the Nation’s Report Card) released in late 2022, showed that Catholic schools outperformed public school counterparts in almost all categories. According to NAEP, Catholic school students performed at or near the top in reading and math compared to public schools coming out of the pandemic. If Catholic schools were a state, they’d be the highest-performing state in the nation. They’d also be the most cost-effective state—by a long shot. Catholic school enrollment increased by 3.8% during the 2021-2022 academic year, the first increase in two decades, and they have held steady.
In a recent conversation on the topic of learning loss with Jodee Blanco, New York Times bestselling author and anti-bullying expert, she commented: “It’s not just academic learning loss. Many students have forgotten how to connect with each other on a human level. It’s as if compassion, tolerance and inclusivity all took a hit in our schools and it’s perpetuating its own kind of learning loss because a child who feels sad and disconnected is unlikely to assimilate or retain much of anything. As Catholic educators, we need to help our kids find their way back to empathy by exemplifying it ourselves in and out of the classroom every day in every way that we can and implement programs that support those efforts.”
Catholic school communities are hardwired to meet these lingering challenges because of who and what they’re made of. In fact, one could argue that the world needs Catholic schools now more than ever. Our shared mission not only addresses but advances God’s justice, love and peace through the challenges of a post-pandemic world. But how?
“Unity” is a critical aspect of Catholic school success, especially during and after the pandemic. Even when church doors were shuttered and schools moved to virtual learning, our communities of faith and learning remained unified and intact.
The unity experienced in Catholic schools draws new families into the fold, and it can be witnessed in different ways. The holistic approach of Catholic schools is unitive in the education they deliver and in the communities they form. We are a part of and have responsibility to something and Someone greater than ourselves. At the center of Catholic school mission stands the person of Jesus Christ. We are ultimately united in him. Jesus says to his disciples, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). We do this together. That’s why Catholic schools were a pandemic-era success story. Just like the earliest disciples, “All who believed were together and had all things in common.” (Acts 2:44). By leaning into the Lord and one another, our kids had a chance–and so did we.
After 20 years serving in a Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph (CSJ)-sponsored Catholic high school, the charism of these incredible women remains with me. The sense of belonging experienced in Catholic schools, which helped get us over the pandemic hump, is expressed beautifully in the CSJ Constitution: “We are called to live the mission of unity by love of God and neighbor without distinction.”
To measure the state of your own Catholic school community and our shared mission unified in Christ, visit