By Carol Zimmermann | Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) — As Catholic schools are preparing for the new year, and many have already opened their doors, there is a broad range of face mask policies in effect — from none at all to strict requirements — as the nation battles another coronavirus surge.
Decisions about mask requirements for Catholic schools are made at diocesan levels primarily based on local COVID-19 cases. Some Catholic school systems are not requiring masks like their public school counterparts or even when local public schools have a mask mandate in place.
Other Catholic superintendents have recently announced that masks are now required after previously saying they would not be and at least one archdiocese is following a hybrid model, requiring masks only indoors and not requiring them for high school students.
In some of the dioceses with school mask requirements, parents are protesting and signing petitions saying they should have been given the choice.
The issue of student masks is just as unsettled, if not more so, in public schools across the country and is being argued in school board meetings and state courts.
Some states have issued statewide mask mandates while others have left this decision up to local districts and some state leaders have banned mask mandates put in place and have and are threatening schools that enforce them.
In its most recent guidance for schools, issued in late July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended wearing masks indoors for ages 2 and older, regardless of vaccination status, due to the highly contagious Delta variant of COVID-19.
The American Academy of Pediatrics also recommended that all students and teachers wear masks in school this fall particularly since a large portion of the student population still isn’t eligible to get vaccinated.
Across the country, many diocesan school superintendents have acknowledged that their COVID-19 protocols have been in flux due to the changing nature of the pandemic and the recent rise in COVID-19 cases around the country.
“The COVID-19 global pandemic is evolving daily and affecting the opening of our Catholic schools this week,” school officials from the Diocese of St. Augustine, Florida, wrote in an Aug. 9 letter to Catholic school families and staff members. “We had hoped to have masks optional for everyone as we begin this school year, but due to safety concerns, we have had to revisit our COVID-19 protocols.”
That letter was sent at the beginning of the week, two days before schools opened; by the week’s end, dozens of parents had gathered outside the diocesan offices protesting the school mask decision and holding aloft signs that said: “Unmask our Kids” and “Let parents parent.”
“Our revised safety protocols have nothing to do with politics but everything to do with the reality we face today,” said Bishop Felipe J. Estévez of the Diocese of St. Augustine.
“Children under the age of 12 and older are contracting the virus and its variants at increasing rates. The vaccine is not available to our younger population, making them especially vulnerable to serious illness and others who come into contact with them,” he said in a statement.
That argument didn’t sit with one Catholic school parent who told WJAX-TV, a CBS affiliate in Jacksonville, Florida, the mask mandate went against what the church teaches about putting faith over fear.
Deacon Scott Conway, school superintendent of St. Augustine, said the mask decision is related to COVID-19 numbers and will be relaxed once these numbers go down. He also said Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ executive order letting parents decide whether to have their children wear masks doesn’t apply to private schools.
The diocese would consider making masks optional only if there is a 10% rate of positive COVID-19 rates in counties where its schools are located. In mid-August, Florida’s Duval County, one of the counties in the St. Augustine Diocese, was reporting a 25.4% positive new case rate of COVID-19.
In the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Catholic school superintendent Hal Plummer told parents and school community members in a late July letter that archdiocesan schools would be following a hybrid mix that would primarily involve masks indoors for elementary school students.
He said he was aware that not everyone in the archdiocesan school community would support the mask requirement.
“Few issues since the pandemic began have elicited such strong and conflicting views,” he said, urging parents to respect school leadership and to pray for an end to the pandemic.
And as he predicted, not everyone did support this requirement, even as numbers of COVID-19 cases have surged in the Atlanta region and among school-age children in particular. In one local county, several schools returned to a virtual learning format due to a rise in coronavirus cases.
Dozens of parents gathered Aug. 1 outside the Cathedral of Christ the King in Atlanta for prayerful protest against the archdiocesan student mask policy and more than 1,200 signed a petition urging the archdiocese to give parents a choice about face masks.
In the Diocese of Peoria, Illinois, after Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s Aug. 4 announcement that students and teachers in all state schools would be required to wear masks, Catholic school parents had mixed reactions.
Just weeks earlier, the diocese’s Office of Catholic Schools had announced that parents would be able to determine what was best for their children regarding masks. After the governor’s announcement, Sharon Weiss, superintendent of diocesan schools, directed all school leaders to comply with the state requirement.
Some parents have said they would defy the order and send their children to school without masks and withdraw them from school if necessary. Local Catholic school administrators have expressed concern that they may lose enrollment to public schools around them that are voting not to follow the mask mandate.
Weiss told The Catholic Post, newspaper of the Diocese of Peoria, Illinois, that she received a petition with 400 signatures urging her not to make students wear masks and said other Illinois Catholic school superintendents have received similar requests.
Noncompliance with the mask mandate isn’t an option, she explained in an Aug. 9 memo sent to diocesan Catholic school parents.
She pointed out that Catholic Mutual Group, the diocesan insurer, has recommended the diocesan schools following mandates or guidelines from the CDC as well as those on the state, county and local levels.
Disregarding them “could be considered gross negligence associated with the COVID-19 response and could subject the schools to unnecessary liability,” Weiss said.
“As superintendent, I will not put our schools at risk by not complying” she said, noting that younger children who come to school without a mask or older students who refuse to wear one will be sent home. If the situation persists, principals have been directed to contact families with the message that parents/guardians will be asked to withdraw their children from the school.
“It is a tremendous privilege that we have been given by Christ in our vocations as educators, and I certainly do not want to interrupt the church’s mission in any way,” Weiss wrote in the message sent to parents the week before classes started.
“It is not our intention to terminate any student’s enrollment, but we will be forced to if there is not compliance,” she added.