For the first time in decades, Catholic school enrollment is up, both in Southern California and across the country.

After reaching heights of more than 5 million students in the 1960s, enrollment dropped to 1.6 million before the pandemic, resulting in empty desks and school closures.

“There was real concern for the sustainability of Catholic schools, not only here but nationwide,” said Erin Barisano, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Orange. “Then the pandemic hit and who would have thought this would be the shot in the arm that we needed to show how wonderful our schools are.”

When schools transitioned to remote learning during the pandemic, Catholic schools in Orange County were some of the first and only to be back in the classroom.

“That was a game changer for us, when public school counterparts couldn’t open for in-person, the Catholic schools in Diocese of Orange, we opened Sept. 8, 2020, fully in person,” Barisano said.

Parents, especially those whose children were struggling with remote learning, took notice.

“I went above and beyond and hired a private tutor to sit with children at home cameras on and paying attention … I tried different things, setting up desks in their bedrooms, homework center and nothing was working,” said parent Cristina Prieto.

So Prieto pulled her preschooler, fourth grader and eighth grader out of public school and put them into a Catholic school, joining tens of thousands of parents who did the same during the pandemic.

Last year, enrollment at parochial schools grew by more than 60,000, according to Jesuit publication America Magazine, marking a 3.8% increase

The numbers were even better in SoCal, with a 4% increase in the Archdiocese of L.A., an 8.5% increase in the Diocese of Orange and an 18% increase in the Diocese of San Bernardino.

Despite the growth, Barisano noted that Catholic schools did not see widespread COVID-19 outbreaks, which may have brought in new families.

“The virus was not on our campuses, it was not being spread student to student. Our schools were safe,” she said. “Families who never dreamed of a Catholic education for their children are now falling in love.”