WASHINGTON — Catholic school enrollment increased for the first time in two decades this school year, according to a preliminary report released by the National Catholic Educational Association Feb. 14. The enrollment increase was from Catholic elementary schools and overall grew overall by 5.8% — primarily due to the sharp rise in the number of prekindergarten students. Catholic secondary schools’ enrollment went down by 0.4% this year. Highlights of the annual report, which will be issued in March, showed an enrollment increase of 62,000 students, or a 3.8% jump. The increase does not put Catholic school numbers back to their pre-pandemic levels, though. During the first year of the pandemic, Catholic school enrollment decreased by 6.4%, its largest one-year decline in the 50 years the NCEA has been collecting school data. Right now, Catholic school enrollment is 2.8% lower than it was 2019-2020. The brief report credited the enrollment bump this year to Catholic schools’ “dedication in safely opening classrooms and supporting their communities’ needs,” but it also stressed this trend must continue. It pointed out that schools “need to continue to adapt to those needs and use the momentum to retain students and recruit new students in the upcoming years to stabilize or continue to increase enrollment.” Elementary schools were initially hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic with an 8.1% decrease in enrollment last year. The report calls this year’s increase a “positive sign for long-term secondary school viability.” The number of students in Catholic school prekindergarten classes increased by 33.5% this year with nearly every state reporting an increase of students in this age group particularly Utah with a 137% increase and California with a 134% increase.