Economic crisis tests Hawaii’s already-struggling Catholic private schools

Catholic schools are being challenged by the coronavirus pandemic, leading to closures

HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - After 60 years, St. John the Baptist school in Kalihi recently announced its closure.

The permanent end of their instructional days is a sign of the times for Hawaii’s private Catholic schools. As the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic widens, more are finding its harder to stay open.

Pre-K through eighth grade students at St. John were last on campus March 18. Then they switched to distance learning.

But declining enrollment meant it just didn’t make financial sense to stay open.

“For me it was a hard decision to close the school, but I considered it right now, it’s the best decision,” said Father Diego Restrepo, of St. John’s the Baptist.

Last year, the school had about 170 students. For the upcoming year, their enrollment had dwindled to 55.

“You know finances and enrollment correlate. And so when you’ve got fewer students, it affects the schools financially, and your ability to provide a quality Catholic education,” said Dr. Michael Rockers, superintendent of Hawaii Catholic Schools.

Statewide, 32 Catholic schools educate about 8,000 students.

But even before the pandemic, they were seeing enrollment decline by about 3% a year. Now, more families are withdrawing students because they can no longer afford tuition.

That's enough to make some schools buckle under the financial restraints.

In Hilo, staff members at Saint Joseph’s School were elated that community donations kept them afloat another year.

At Damien Memorial School, President Brian Walsh said they relied on federal stimulus funding to avoid layoffs and make up for a tuition and fundraising shortfall.

Despite the tough challenges Catholic schools face, leaders have faith in the future.

“I don’t think people understand there’s more to Catholic schools than you think,” Rockers said. “We’re working with parents to help students grow not just academically, but to be people of faith and integrity.”

“I ask them to continue praying in supporting the Catholic education in our diocese,” Father Restrepo added.

Other schools have expressed interest in renting out the St. John campus and facilities, but a deal hasn’t yet been reached.

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