Private school enrollment soars during pandemic

Students at St. Odilia School.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, schools in Minnesota and around the country found themselves in an unprecedented situation — what to do?

The distance learning model seemed like the best way to keep students, teachers and staff safe; schools were shut down for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year.

While public schools decided to maintain the distance learning model at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, most private schools opted to get their students back into the classroom.

One of the first to open in Minnesota was Hill-Murray School in Maplewood, a private Catholic School for grades 6-12.

“Our leadership team worked tirelessly all last summer with a lot of planning, hard work and trust. We had the kids back in school on August 18,” said Melissa Dan, president of Hill-Murray. “The teachers were nervous to come back, but they took a risk and believed in us. We only stayed open all year because of their willingness to put the kids first.”

Dan has a son who attends Hill-Murray. When they went to in-person learning in August, she said she noticed a big change in him.

“The changes I saw in him from March until being able to be in school everyday was just incredible,” she said. “The students never looked so happy when they came back in August. Even if they had to wear masks and follow COVID guidelines, they were so happy to be with their friends again.”

Enrollment has been increasing at Hill-Murray for the last six years, and Dan said last year the interest in the school increased more than ever. She believes that parents might not have considered Hill-Murray as an educational option before the pandemic.  

“With the public school districts not opening last fall, we had an incredible rush of people trying to get into the school in August and September. Unfortunately, some of the grades were already filled, so we weren’t able to take all of the students who wanted to come,” she said.

Why the increase in enrollment among private schools? According to the Minnesota Department of Education, because of the COVID-19 pandemic families across the state made choices that they believed were best for their students, including delaying starting kindergarten for younger learners. Some considered nonpublic options. There was an increase in the number of parents who chose a private school for their children; also, a 12.4% increase in kindergarten enrollment occurred between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years.

Principal Vicki Marvin at St. Odilia School — a private Catholic school in Shoreview for students in preschool to eighth grade — said the school definitely saw an increase in enrollment.

“We typically have a handful of families that contact us for enrollment, but last summer we had over a hundred new families in choir,” Marvin said. “We welcomed 60 new transfer students over the summer for the 2020-21 school year and 100% of them are re-enrolled for this upcoming school year, and that’s exciting.”

Marvin also said she believes parents realize that they have other educational options besides public school for their children.

“I think that for some families who were maybe on the fence on whether or not they should choose a private school, this was enough for them to say, ‘We really want our kids back in person at school, and we’re going to give this a try,’” Marvin said. “I think they found they were very satisfied with the experience and they’re not looking for something different for next year. I also think it has to do with the pandemic, because parents really wanted their kids back in school for a combination of reasons.”

Those reasons, Marvin said, include that St. Odilia School personnel look at the child as a complete person — encompassing their academics, faith life, character development, relationships and connections.

“Our students are getting a strong academic program here that is preparing them for the next steps they take (for high school),” she said. “When their children came home from school, I think parents could not only see the difference in their children, they could feel the difference.”

No matter how you look at it, public and private schools have dealt with tremendous changes throughout the pandemic. Dan said she’s been involved in both public and private school education for 20 years, and she will remember this last year for the rest of her life.

“I’m proud of what a lot of the private and Catholic schools have done by putting the kids first. Kids can’t sit home for a year — they need to be with their teachers and learning. We were in person all year, and we had no more COVID cases than schools who were in distance learning,” Dan said. “The power of good teachers, relationships and being in person with one another is something that’s really important and appreciated.”

Both St. Odilia and Hill-Murray have waiting lists for the 2021-22 school year, but there are limited openings available for certain grades.

For more information on Hill-Murray School, go to

For more information on St. Odilia School, go to

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