Delta Variant Throws ‘Curveball’ as Catholic Schools Reopen

The goal is to get students back in the classroom with a strong academic and religious program, but mask and vaccine mandate controversies are roiling Catholic-school communities across the nation.

A mother adjusts the facemask of her child as she enters St. Lawrence Catholic School on the first day of school after summer vacation, north of Miami, on Aug. 18.
A mother adjusts the facemask of her child as she enters St. Lawrence Catholic School on the first day of school after summer vacation, north of Miami, on Aug. 18. (photo: Chandan Khanna / AFP/Getty)

NEW YORK — Michael Deegan, the Archdiocese of New York’s superintendent of schools, spent the summer preparing for his schools to safely reopen in September, and much of that time involved discussions with his Health and Safety Task Force, charting the Delta variant and its alarming impact on COVID-19 transmission rates.  

In August, the archdiocese released a manual outlining updated procedures, including “socially distant classrooms with hand-sanitizer stations, mandatory temperature checks, a daily questionnaire for parents and masks for anyone who will enter the building.”

The 2021-2022 school year was supposed to be different: Last spring, as COVID cases declined and vaccination rates shot up, the Centers for Disease Control no longer required masks to be worn indoors, and it was reasonable to expect that a semblance of normalcy would return to classrooms this fall.

Instead, the Delta variant has reversed the decline in COVID-transmission numbers, prompting a renewed push by public authorities and private employers for vaccine and mask mandates, and pandemic-hardened school administrators expect another challenging year.

“The dilemma now for schools is that as kids have come back from a pretty safe summer, the Delta variant has thrown a curveball,” said Lincoln Snyder, president and CEO of the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) and the former superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Sacramento, California.

“Children were not efficient transmitters of earlier variants of COVID, but data suggest that they are efficient transmitters of the Delta variant. Some of our schools have had more children contract the Delta variant in the last week than during the entire previous school year.” 

“The kids don’t seem to be getting sicker from Delta than previous variants, but they are catching it more easily,” Snyder told the Register.

In the 2020-2021 academic year, some parochial schools, already buffeted by demographic declines in Catholic strongholds like the Northeast corridor, were hit hard by pandemic lockdowns that forced financially strapped parents to pull their children from parish schools and saw a steep dive in church collections that subsidize tuitions. 

By the end of the last school year, 200 schools closed permanently, and enrollment in the 5,981 remaining schools dropped by 6.4%, according to the NCEA

But the Catholic system has also attracted a new cohort of families from struggling public schools, and during the past year, dioceses have ramped up community outreach and strengthened or diversified academic offerings, with some schools refounded as classical, STEM or bilingual programs.

“This is a unique time for Catholic schools, and we have ... an opportunity to bring [new] families into the school permanently,” said Snyder.


Responding to Questions

In the short term, however, superintendents and principals must maintain a laser-like focus on safety and respond to the flood of questions about their mask and vaccine policies.

These policies, as Snyder explained, are generally decided at the state and diocesan level. A few GOP governors have banned mask mandates for public schools, other government leaders are requiring every teacher to be vaccinated, and high-school students could be next, now that the Food and Drug Administration has fully approved the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for people age 16 and older.

Local bishops, for their part, must take the array of government regulations and guidance into consideration before approving plans for their schools or addressing the issue of religious or conscience exemptions. At the same time, they are free to signal their own priorities in the dioceses they oversee.

“There are those bishops who believe everybody should be vaccinated,” Bishop Thomas Daly of Spokane, Washington, the incoming chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Catholic Education, told the Register.

“There are those who are risk-averse: They don’t want the Church in any way involved in granting an exemption which could lead to the Church being blamed or held accountable for harming the common good,” Bishop Daly said. 

“And there are those who have legitimately determined that we cannot mandate this for a number of reasons,” he added. 

In an Aug. 19 “Vaccine Mandate Statement,” Bishop Daly said, “[I]f a person has health concerns or moral objections about vaccines, he or she should not be forced into being vaccinated.” 

In that document, he also noted that diocesan officials in the state were in “conversation with civic and health officials about government-mandated vaccination requirements and will offer further guidance to parish and school personnel in due time.” 

An additional wrinkle in this process is the fact that independent Church-affiliated schools are free to craft their own policies for vaccines and masks. 

For example, Gonzaga College High School, the flagship Jesuit prep school in Washington, D.C., clearly states on its website that all students must “receive the COVID-19 vaccination prior to the start of the school year.” 

“Under federal and D.C. law there are limited exemptions from vaccination,” the school webpage notes. Those seeking a religious exemption must obtain a letter from “a religious leader of the family’s center of faith practice authenticating the family’s active participation in that faith community, as well as a statement authenticating why the vaccine is inconsistent with that particular faith’s established belief system. Please note that a request for a religious exemption may be granted at Gonzaga’s sole discretion, based on the documentation provided.”


Claiming an Exemption

But even if local bishops bar their priests from providing religious exemptions, as many have done, individual Catholics are still free to claim one, say experts.

Joe Zalot, staff ethicist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center, told the Register that its consultation line has been deluged over the summer with calls from parents, employees and military service members seeking exemptions to vaccine mandates.

Parents with school-age and college-age children are looking for resources, such as those available at the NCBC website, to help them file for religious or conscience exemptions, he reported.

“Some people are getting exemptions, and some are not,” said Zalot, and “when an exemption is turned down, the only option is a legal one. I have a list of religious-liberty lawsuits, and I forward that.”

Legal experts specializing in religious-freedom issues are watching these developments closely.

“It is still early. I am not aware of states that have imposed COVID vaccine mandates on K-12 schools,” Becket’s Mark Rienzi told the Register. “Historically, when government does impose this kind of mandate, they have included religious exemptions.”

For now, however, most elementary-school parents are focused on mask mandates, as the FDA has not approved any COVID-19 vaccine for children under the age of 12.

“All adults and students, vaccinated or unvaccinated, will be required to wear masks in school,” the Archdiocese of New York’s Deegan told the Register, as he listed the protocols he hopes will keep the Delta variant at bay. “I can tell you that it is not a very popular decision in some schools, but my responsibility is to ensure the health and safety of our schools.”

Deegan is also waiting to see whether the new governor of New York, Kathy Hochul, makes good on her promise to issue orders requiring all staff and teachers at K-12 schools, public and private, to be vaccinated or submit to regular testing. Once he receives a written directive from the state, he’ll review it with his advisers before making any changes to the reopening plan. 

“At this point, our reopening policy manual cites the Holy Father and Cardinal Dolan, as we strongly encourage all of our teachers and all who are eligible to be vaccinated,” he said. “As to whether or not there will be additional expectations or requirements, we will see whether or how we will comply.”


‘Highly Charged Issue’

Deegan is not the only school official to grapple with evolving state health protocols and parental pushback.

In the Diocese of Covington, Kentucky, a group of parents with children enrolled at St. Joseph’s School in Cold Spring filed suit against an order issued by Gov. Andy Beshear that required masks to be worn at all K-12 public and private schools, regardless of vaccine status. The group was able to obtain a temporary restraining order that makes the mask mandate optional for the Diocese of Covington’s 35 schools; the diocese itself was not party to the lawsuit. 

And Tom Carroll, the seasoned superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Boston, confirmed that mask mandates have emerged as “a highly charged issue” for his school community. 

“We are getting non-stop input from parents and faculty on both sides of the issue, and our principals have been getting attacked from both sides,” said Carroll.

“For us, it’s not about counting how many say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ [to masks] — we are considering everything, synthesizing information to see what is right for a geographically large school district.”

Carroll noted that the state will reassess the need for mask mandates in October, as Massachusetts’ vaccination rate continues to outpace many other states, and more than half of children ages 12-19 have already received at least one shot.

“If the regulatory backdrop changes, if health concerns change, and with input from parents and teachers, we are prepared to change our position,” he said, adding that he had been fielding telephone calls from worried parents until late into the evening and wanted to make sure that every one of them had a chance for an exchange of views.

The calls make clear that the debate over mask and vaccines mandates is not only generating headwinds for superintendents and principals, it threatens to divide school communities.


Parent Perspective

“Before 2020, the group of mothers I knew appeared to be of one mind with the same priorities,” Mary Harrell, a Catholic mother of four in Sacramento, California, who initially chose home schooling and is currently opting for a hybrid schooling model, told the Register. 

“But when it comes down to things that were not on our radar before, there is a lot of disagreement,” she said. “There are parents who like the status quo and parents who are vehemently opposed to how diocesan schools currently look, with masks on all children.”

“For some families, the restrictions were a deal breaker [prompting them to leave the school],” Harrell said. “Others said, ‘We don’t like it, but this is where I want to be, and we will fight it.’ They are all mama bears trying to do the best for their children and families.”

Bishop Daly said he understood what parents were up against, but asked them to remember that the “Church has run schools through plagues, hardships and setbacks.”

“The pandemic has intensified our weaknesses, but it has also helped to highlight our strengths,” he observed as he reflected on the courage and fortitude of Catholic teachers and staff who kept schools open, placing the needs of children first, while many public schools failed to do so.

Catholic parents should be “prudent and careful, but not fearful or reckless,” he suggested.

“These are difficult, confusing times” for school leaders, too, he said. “But if you root your academic program in Jesus Christ and truth in charity, you will bring about healing.”

He added: “This is the time and place God has put us into. We have to deal with this.”