Pandemic Schools and Religious Renewal
It's hardly news that organized religion in the United States is in trouble. Traditional Christian denominations continue to lose adherents at an alarming rate, with the percentage of self-described Protestants falling from 51% to 43% over the last decade and Catholics slipping from 23% to 20% over the same period. Among Jews, roughly a quarter of those raised religiously — as opposed to just ethnically or culturally — no longer identify with one of the three major denominations (Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform).
Yet for all the concern expressed by religious leaders over the future of their respective faith traditions, the problem they face is often misstated. As Baylor University historian Philip Jenkins has frequently noted, the decline in denominational activity is not equivalent to a declining faith in God. A recent study published in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion, for instance, finds that many Americans who declare themselves unaffiliated with a particular faith tradition still attend religious services, pray, and meditate on a regular basis. They also report religious experiences, and many say they believe in heaven, hell, and miracles. Even among the age cohort least likely to attend regular worship services — Americans between 13 and 25 years old — 78% still describe themselves as in some way "spiritual." Belief in God, which is at a historic low, still stands at 81%.
What has happened since the 1950s is that believers of all persuasions are finding less reason to affiliate with a neighborhood house of worship. According to a 2020 Gallup study, even those who continue to profess a denominational preference are forsaking congregational membership. From 1998 to 2000, an average of 73% of Americans who identified with a specific faith tradition also belonged to a church, synagogue, or mosque. Today, the average is only 60%.
For decades, sociologists have debated the reasons for this development. Some ascribe it to increased social mobility which, since the beginning of the last century, has made it harder to remain affiliated with a given parish. Others say America's long history of religious toleration is responsible for a kind of streamlined theological outlook — a contemporary version of Gottfried Leibniz's perennial philosophy — that discounts the importance of regular communal worship. Still others blame a growing emphasis by many clergy on ethics and social reform at the expense of the supernatural and personal salvation. Noting survey results showing that an inspiring sermon is what regular churchgoers want most, some observers have even put the blame for declining religious affiliation on mediocre or burned-out pastors. "Perhaps our greatest concern shouldn't be empty pulpits," says former Christianity Today editor Kyle Rohane, "but rather empty pastors standing in them."
Whatever the relative contribution of these factors, there is one modern development that has diminished the importance of the local parish in a very practical way: its reduced role in providing the community with essential public services. Whereas in times past, houses of worship were the primary providers of health care, family counseling, welfare, education, and venues for public assembly and debate, today only education survives — in the form of daycare for children of working parents. This is largely because most K-12 public-school districts have yet to offer such services.
Yet beginning in 2020, when it seemed that secular institutions had replaced religious bodies as the preferred supplier of social services, something unexpected happened: the coronavirus pandemic. With public schools closed, operating just a few days a week, or offering inadequate online substitutes for in-person instruction, parents across the country suddenly found themselves with little alternative but to take direct responsibility for properly educating their own children.
HOUSES OF WORSHIP AS HOUSES OF LEARNING
As newspapers and broadcast media reported with increasing frequency throughout the lockdowns, many parents resorted to forming "learning pods" or "micro-schools" — small groups of neighborhood children using some combination of home-school curricula and in-person tutoring — to compensate for the instruction that local public schools had ceased to provide. By August 2020, according to Gallup, 10% of American families were schooling their kids at home, with many benefiting from these new learning arrangements. Sujata Bhatt, a senior fellow at the education non-profit Transcend, dubbed the pandemic home-school efforts "the largest educational innovation experiment in the history of mankind."
Perhaps understandably, most of the press coverage of these newly improvised schools focused on how, by sharing teaching responsibilities, parents were able to continue working while simultaneously educating their children. Many reporters were also impressed by the self-confidence and resourcefulness it took to create them.
Overlooked in virtually all the coverage, however, was the extent to which these collaborative schools came to be based in houses of worship. Senior centers, YMCAs, town halls, and other community venues that might normally have been available were, as a result of the pandemic, either closed, operating on limited hours, or committed to their own emergency efforts. And while meeting in a park would have sufficed when the sun was out, the weather isn't always reliable. By process of elimination, many families realized that the one place large enough, safe enough, and empty enough to run a small school during the workweek was the local parish.
"That was certainly my experience," says Beth Bovee who, during the height of Covid-19 lockdowns, started a small school for children with learning disabilities in the Phoenix area. Almost immediately, it became clear to her that the biggest hurdle would be finding a venue outside parents' homes, where toys and technology wouldn't distract the students. Realizing that local churches were largely empty on weekdays, she "kept coming back to that idea" until finally the minister at Desert Hills Presbyterian in Scottsdale "welcomed us with open arms."
"The unsung heroes [of the pandemic] are the pastors and church boards," says Tina Hollenbeck, founder of the Homeschool Resource Roadmap. For months, these individuals provided the "spaces where kids [could] gather in small groups to learn with and alongside their parents and other adult leaders." Brian Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute,[correction appended] makes a similar observation: "There's no official data yet, but with so many parents looking for places to safely educate their children, the use of religious settings...clearly accelerated."
Hosting small, family-run schools in parishes was not new to the pandemic, notes Erin Valdez, an education analyst at the Texas Public Policy Foundation; Valdez herself is a product of church-sited home-school cooperatives in Florida and Texas. She points out that houses of worship that quietly provide an alternative to both public and conventional private schools "have been around in some form for decades."
In most cases, says Valdez, parishes simply gave some space to home-schooling families wanting to share or rotate the supervision of their children's education. A few, however, allowed the growth of far more elaborate programs. Cornerstone Church in Uxbridge, Massachusetts, for example, has for years hosted a parent-run school called DELTIC (Doing Education in Life Together in Christ) Prep, which annually educates 70 to 90 students across multiple grades for around $15 each. In Maryland, where churches are permitted to substitute for states in overseeing home schools, parishes like Waldorf's Calvary Gospel Church and Upper Marlboro's First Baptist Church of Glenarden have long offered instruction in science and English to small groups of students. And in Arizona, flexible education statutes have allowed the Assembly of God Church on the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation to run a micro-school for third through eighth graders, combining conventional coursework with a unique tribal-heritage curriculum.
Even before the Covid-19 lockdowns, according to the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA), as many as a quarter (approximately 1,500) of its member schools met the technical definition of a micro-school. That is, they provided multi-grade-level education to 150 or fewer students within the walls of a single church. What was new with Covid-19 was the dramatic increase in the overall demand for church-sited instruction. "[Public-school] teachers just tried to portal the school experience into homes," recalls Michael Horn, co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation and executive editor of Education Next. Unfortunately, these internet substitutes "did little to take advantage of modern digital techniques for instructing students according to their development and learning styles."
While churches without home-schooling collaboratives or micro-schools were being asked to start new ones, those with pre-existing programs were flooded with applications. "We got countless phone calls from parents who never would have considered anything like what [we do]" reports LaNissir James, director of the home-schooling ministry at Maryland's Calvary Gospel. DELTIC was so overwhelmed with applications, according to the program's co-director, Sandra Authier, that it soon had a wait-list. "It was exciting to see so many jumping on board," she recalls.
Even more surprising than the sudden demand for parish-based schools was the fact that, as the pandemic began to subside and public schools were reopening, the interest from parents only continued to grow. Beth Bovee's micro-school at Desert Hills Presbyterian, for example, started with just five children; it now calls itself "True North Academy" and is looking to cover grades one through eight.
Then there's the case of the Fellowship Church of Greenwood, Missouri, which started its Homeschool Academy during the 2020-2021 academic year with 110 students. A year later, as families across the country were beginning to resume normal lives, its enrollment doubled to 220. Prior to the 2022-2023 school year, according to the church's campus-ministries pastor, Adam Foster, the projected enrollment for the year bumped up against "the max capacity for our building."
Jill Annable, the former senior vice president of programs for the NCEA, reports a similar trend among the parish-based schools she follows. "I'm seeing really incredible things," she says. "All the families that came to [them] during the pandemic are staying and new families are being added."
As to why so many of the religious home-school collaboratives and micro-schools that grew in response to Covid-19 have continued to expand, there is no single answer. Conservative media have made much of the shock many parents experienced when, forced to become more involved with their children's schoolwork, they discovered the extent to which critical race theory and related ideas had penetrated the local curriculum.
But for many poor and minority parents, says Anita Gibson, who directs the home-school program at the largely black First Baptist Church of Glenarden, the issue that keeps them coming back is quality. The families that initially enrolled their children in the church's Shabach Christian Academy during the pandemic had "seen what their kids were learning on videos from their district schools and said to themselves, 'I can do better than that.'" She adds: "They also came to realize that their kids would learn faster in our smaller classes, so [they] could have more time for subjects they were passionate about."
As these newly enrolled families began to talk about their experience with church-sited schooling, neighbors who had other reasons to be concerned about local public schools even before the lockdowns — opaque district spending, ignorance of student needs, byzantine evaluation systems, and the like — started to register their own children. In other words, says Gibson, many of the families who first enrolled because of quality concerns with the local public schools have "become magnets" for others.
And while many parents are sticking with home-school collaboratives and micro-schools because of the deficiencies they had seen in their children's previous placements, others have become fans of the increasingly sophisticated online programs used in both approaches. As an Education Next study recently concluded, it doesn't take a large and highly paid faculty to run an excellent school, just an enthusiastic and dedicated one. Because of modern technology, a parent or church tutor "confident in her ability to teach grammar, spelling, and literature but not in her mastery of long division, algebra, and calculus can now ask [the student] to turn to Khan Academy or some free or low-cost instruction for help."
Indeed, what many parents using church-sited schools have come to realize is that the educational benefits they had once associated with expensive private and stand-alone parochial schools can now be procured at a much lower cost. In Bowie, Maryland, for example, the Methodist Mount Oak Fellowship Church and the Judah Temple AME Zion Church host the Extend Homeschool Tutorial, which, under director Kym Kent, offers an à la carte menu of inexpensive tutored courses. Families can sign up their child for just one class ($325 for elementary and middle-school courses, $350 for high-school courses) or use the program as a fully functioning school. Parents who themselves are willing to teach can arrange to instruct each other's children in lieu of paying tuition.
While parish schools often lack the amenities associated with larger, fully equipped independent schools, pastors have proved remarkably creative at compensating for any deficiency. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, for example, students in the Olivet Baptist Church micro-school are granted access to the science laboratories at the more traditional Chattanooga Christian School. Arianna Prothero, a staff writer for Education Week who began studying small schools before the pandemic, predicts that they could provide "new competition for private K-12."
As to the non-academic attraction of parish-sited schools, the most obvious is the opportunity to educate one's child within the context of a family's religious and moral values — but it's not the only one. A September 2020 poll conducted by Morning Consult for EdChoice found that many parents who came to rely on home schooling and micro-schools during the pandemic had become particularly attached to how flexible their schedules were. Parents also liked the freedom to personalize their child's curriculum, which can include part-time virtual electives, specialized tutoring, and community activities.
Does all this mean that parish-based schooling could be the service innovation that finally allows houses of worship to begin reversing the contemporary decline in religious affiliation? Only time will tell, but that certainly seems to be the opinion of those involved.
"Yes," insists Pastor Foster who, in addition to the Homeschool Academy at Greenwood's Fellowship Church, oversees two other church-sited schools in the Kansas City, Missouri, area. He thinks that by combining "the best parts of a traditional education with all the best parts of home schooling," churches can reclaim a role that for too long "has been abdicated to government."
Jill Annable believes that the parish-sited home schools and micro-schools she follows are already having an impact on the size of their associated congregations. She is especially struck by how many previously unchurched families who joined home-school collaboratives or micro-schools during the pandemic have been taken by the experience of working with parish volunteers from across multiple generations: "In addition to a school they wanted, they found an unexpectedly joyous and hopeful sense of community."
Arizona State University professor Andrew Barnes, who teaches the history of Christianity in Europe and Africa, notes that from the 16th century to the mid-1800s, the ability of organized religion to provide the laity with a basic education was a major part of its attraction. This was especially true in 18th-century England where, in the absence of child-labor laws, the antecedents of today's Sunday schools were established to ensure that working children learned to read and write. "I can see that [role for churches] happening again," he says.
Those who share the professor's optimism about the growth of parish-based schooling cite three factors they believe will facilitate this trend.
The first is the rise of the work-from-home movement, which, even before the pandemic, had gone from no higher than 3.5% of the non-farm workforce before 2000 to 24% in 2019. Today, according to Kastle Systems, a nationwide provider of office-building security services, the number of workers returning full time to their company offices in New York and other large cities remains less than half of pre-pandemic levels. In a working paper for Stanford University's Digital Economy Lab, researchers put the current percentage of all U.S. employees working remotely either full time or part time at just over half.
"The past two years have fundamentally reshaped how Americans work," says Kerry McDonald, a senior education fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) and author of Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children outside the Conventional Classroom. This development has, in turn, freed up the time needed to become involved with a child's home-schooling collaborative or parish micro-school. "As more and more parents are no longer tied to a standard, Monday through Friday, 9-to-5 work schedule," she predicts, "they [will increasingly choose] alternative learning options for their children."
Interestingly, many parents appear to agree with at least the premise of McDonald's forecast. According to a recent Softchoice survey of more than 1,700 North American white-collar workers, 75% say that they would use the hours gained by working where and when they want to take better care of their family responsibilities.
The second factor likely to spur the development of parish-based schools is the growing availability of denominationally oriented templates for that very purpose. In 2021, Annable and Kevin Baxter, also formerly of the NCEA, co-authored Greatness in Smallness, a handbook for priests and lay worshippers wanting to start an educational program at their local church.
To provide similar guidance for Protestants, the Stanley M. Herzog Foundation's president, Pastor Darrell Jones, recently convened a group to help him design what he calls a "school box" — a step-by-step manual for establishing a congregation-based micro-school. And with support from the Drexel Fund, Christian classical educator Kevin Clark founded the Ecclesial Schools Initiative — a template for parish schools hoping to adopt a classical curriculum. The first such school opened in 2020 at Orlando's St. Alban's Anglican Cathedral with just 39 students; it has already reached the church's maximum capacity with 134 students in grades K-7.
Beyond these explicitly denominational efforts, there are also a number of organizations — most prominently the Austin-based Acton Academy and Mesa, Arizona's Prenda — that, even before the pandemic, were providing guidance to various community groups that wanted to establish their own small schools. And although neither of their operational models has a religious orientation, some church-sited micro-schools have used them.
The final factor that seems likely to facilitate the growth of parish-based schools is the spread of education savings accounts (ESAs). First passed by the Arizona legislature in 2011, ESA programs provide parents who believe their child is not adequately served by their local public school with an annual budget, which can be spent on a variety of accredited options. These include not just traditional private and parochial schools, but also the kind of collaborative home-school classes and micro-school curricula offered by houses of worship.
In the years since 2011, Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia have all followed Arizona's lead by enacting similar programs. And while most were adopted to benefit a particular group, such as learning-disabled or unusually gifted children, "they almost always become politically popular and expand," notes Missouri state representative Phil Christofanelli. Arizona, in fact, has just amended its legislation to make ESAs available to any family who wants to use them.
The continuing growth of ESAs "could be a real game changer," says the Herzog Foundation's Jones — especially since the U.S. Supreme Court's June 2022 ruling that religious schools cannot be excluded from government programs that offer tuition assistance for non-public education.
Jones adds that while the amount of the typical ESA tends to be less than the per-pupil cost of educating the average public-school student, it is more than enough to cover the instructional costs of the typical parish micro-school or home-schooling collaborative. The very fact that churches have so much empty space during the week means that "the price of building classrooms [is taken] out of their cost."
But perhaps the most promising indicator of parish schooling's future is the degree to which teachers' unions have organized, both openly and indirectly, to impede the growth of both collaborative home schooling and micro-schools. It's no coincidence that the Public Health Department in Austin wants any micro-school with four or more children to become a "registered child care home," which requires meeting the minimum standards laid out in a nearly 300-page document. The New York State Education Department has similarly advised home-schooling parents who pool their resources that they are no longer home schooling but operating an unlicensed private school.
Jason Bedrick, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation's Center for Education Policy, doesn't find this surprising. He tells the Wall Street Journal's Elliot Kaufman that public educators will "[p]ile on as much regulation as they can get away with...without any evidence that there is [really] a problem that needs to be addressed....[Their strategy] is death by a thousand cuts."
There also seems to be a coordinated effort on the part of teachers' unions to conflate the widely unpopular Zoom classes and filmed lectures that many public schools produced during the Covid-19 lockdowns with today's far more sophisticated home-school curricula. What the school districts produced were "a disaster for many students," says FEE's McDonald, which should in no way be confused with the "high-quality online learning models designed specifically for virtual learning, with a curriculum intended to be delivered online and by teachers who are excited about and trained in online learning."
Yet whatever efforts the teachers' unions may be making to hobble home-school collaboratives and micro-schools, Michael McShane, the director of national research at EdChoice, believes that the only real limitation on the movement's future success is internal. Given that "churches already have the physical infrastructure and much of the coursework can be outsourced to online programs," says McShane, all any parish really needs to start its own school "are two or three good teachers." What they can then create is "a deeply human thing," which, in turn, can become "fertile ground for evangelization."
Religious institutions may be on the decline in America today, but Americans' enduring spirituality suggests they are still searching for the kind of meaning and purpose that communal worship can provide. Thanks to the growth of parish-sited schools during the pandemic, many now have a reason to either connect with a new faith community or reconnect with one they had left behind. Going forward, the houses of worship that opened their doors to families seeking a place of refuge and education for their school-aged children during the pandemic have "an incredible opportunity to reverse the decades-long slide in denominational affiliation," McShane points out — as long as "they have the vision to seize it."
Correction appended: The text originally identified Mr. Ray's organization as the National Home Scool Education Research Institute. We apologize for the the oversight.[return to text]