Mask Up? Many Catholic Schools Are Thinking Maybe Not

As Catholic elementary schools gear up for the 2021-2022 academic year, key decisions on safe practices related to the COVID-19 pandemic are being made on the local level.

Students arrive at St. Joseph Catholic School in La Puente, California, on Nov. 16, 2020.
Students arrive at St. Joseph Catholic School in La Puente, California, on Nov. 16, 2020. (photo: FREDERIC J. BROWN / AFP via Getty Images)

To mask or not to mask, that is the question.

And if current trends hold, it will be answered locally, not globally, in many Catholic schools this coming year.

While enhanced cleaning and social distancing of desks will persist in many places where school officials are mindful of the original virus and a recent variant that has popped up, the universal mask mandate seems to be on its way out.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a federal agency, said on July 13 that children 3 and older who aren’t vaccinated should continue to wear masks. But Catholic-school officials who spoke with the Register recently said they see masks as a case-by-case situation, particularly in rural areas or areas where most of the population has already been fully vaccinated.

Last year, for instance, the Archdiocese of Boston’s schools voluntarily imposed Massachusetts state education health guidelines from the top down, requiring masks for all students. This year, local principals will decide many key details.

“We are now giving the schools the autonomy that we did not give them last year. We’ve eliminated the archdiocesan mask mandate,” said Thomas Carroll, superintendent of schools for the archdiocese, in a telephone interview last week. “Individual schools can implement one. But they are not required to implement one.”

Masks will also be a local decision in the Archdiocese of San Antonio, which operates 37 schools in 19 counties in South and Central Texas.

“We will encourage — strongly encourage — all unvaccinated students to wear masks,” said Marti West, superintendent of schools for the archdiocese.

School officials don’t plan to ask parents, students or staff members whether they have been vaccinated, however, she said. That’s also the case in other Catholic-school systems.


Varying State to State

Many kids are tired of wearing masks, but because of government health rules, it’s still (as of now) required inside school buildings in the Diocese of Yakima in central Washington state, said Doug Rush, the diocese’s director of schools.

“We are lobbying to allow for masks for students to be removed indoors. Until then, we’re going to require them to wear masks,” said Rush, who opened the seven diocesan schools to in-person learning last year over the objections of local health officials, with no major problems following. “When the mask mandate is lifted, we are not going to tie mask-wearing to vaccination. If somebody does not want their child to be vaccinated, that’s their choice.”

More than two dozen Catholic colleges are planning to require all students, instructors and staff members to get vaccinated to come to campus for the fall semester. They include some of the largest and best known, such as Boston College, Notre Dame, Georgetown and Fordham.

Catholic elementary and secondary school officials contacted by the Register aren’t going that route, preferring instead to recommend that parents and staff get vaccinated without mandating it.

In the Archdiocese of New York, which includes portions of New York City and seven counties to the north, school officials are advising parents to get their children vaccinated if it’s available. “But we will not mandate it, because it is in fact, a personal choice,” said Michael Deegan, superintendent of schools for the archdiocese.

As for masks requirements, Deegan isn’t sure yet, and it’s a source of frustration for him.

“Unfortunately, I am extremely disappointed that, unlike the CDC, the New York State Department of Health has not provided any guidelines for the reopening of schools,” Deegan said, adding that he plans to finalize his own plan by early August if he doesn’t hear from the state by then.

A spokesman for the state’s public-health agency, informed about Deegan’s comment, said state officials are gathering information.

“We continue to review the new CDC guidance, communicate with school districts around the state, and will ultimately make our recommendations based on what is in the best interest of public health, particularly when it comes to children; not some arbitrary deadline,” said Abigail Barker, state health department spokesman, by email.

Deegan described a continuing struggle with local and state officials in New York. The Catholic-school system had to sue last fall to get state-required coronavirus testing provided by the city government in New York, he said. (The archdiocese won.)

More recently, he said, state education officials have held up about $40 million in federal coronavirus stimulus funding approved by Congress (under a program called Emergency Assistance to Non-Public Schools) that is supposed to help the archdiocese add professional development, technology and social and emotional support for students. The deadline for getting and using the money is Sept. 1, he said.

“The reality is their bureaucracy will prevent us from accessing this money, because by the time they approve the money, the deadline for spending will be gone,” Deegan said. “It’s disgraceful.”

A spokesman for the New York State Education Department could not be reached late last week.


Boom in Catholic Enrollment

On the bright side, Deegan said the archdiocese’s system (190 schools, with about 58,000 students) saw an increase of about 2,000 students last school year, largely from parents who didn’t want their children to learn online in their public-school system. Deegan said 88% of parents whose children came to the Catholic schools from public schools have reenrolled in the archdiocesan schools for the coming school year.

Anecdotally, school principals in the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas, are seeing an unexpected increase in inquiries from public-school parents. While hard data is not yet available, Vince Cascone, archdiocesan superintendent of schools, anticipates an increase in enrollment in the archdiocese, which runs 42 schools for about 13,100 kids.

“It has been a great opportunity so far to evangelize and welcome more families into our schools,” Cascone said.

Nationally, about 6.4% of Catholic schools (or 209 schools) closed last year, according to the National Catholic Education Association, although Church officials attribute only some of the closures to the coronavirus emergency. That follows a long trend of decline in Catholic-school enrollment.

Yet some Catholic-school officials are seeing the coronavirus emergency as bringing an improbable boost to Catholic education.

In central Washington state, the Diocese of Yakima saw an increase of about 8% in enrollment last school year, and Rush, the superintendent, expects a comparable increase in the coming school year. Rush says he sees the increase in students as an impetus to reemphasize what he called the “mission focus” of the schools, which is not just to educate kids but to bring them closer to God.

In the Archdiocese of San Antonio, which closed one small school in October but kept the other 37 open, test scores in math and English either improved or stayed largely steady, its superintendent said — as opposed to steep declines in public schools in Texas that relied on virtual learning. Enrollment remained steady.

What some are calling a lost year didn’t happen in the Catholic schools, she said.

“Our schools are ready. We’re very excited about the year coming up. We feel like we managed it well last year,” said West, the superintendent. “We’re learning to live with the virus. We can’t control it, but we can live with it.”


Dramatic Turnaround

Among the most dramatic turnarounds is in eastern Massachusetts.

About this time last year, the Archdiocese of Boston’s schools were getting ready for disaster.

The superintendent had closed 11 schools in June 2020. Massive job losses because of the emergency shutdowns suggested fewer parents would be able to afford tuition, and Carroll was getting ready to ax as many as 24 schools of the remaining 100 that fall.

Then, on July 15, 2020, public-school officials in Massachusetts announced that local government schools would open three weeks late and that all learning would be online.

Carroll, the superintendent, had previously advised the archbishop, Cardinal Seán O’Malley, that bad news was likely in the offing.

“But I never anticipated the fact that the school districts would essentially phone it in for a whole school year,” Carroll said.

The result: a surge of 4,000 kids over the next 10 weeks, enrolled by parents eager to have their kids learning in person. For the school year, enrollment system-wide, which had been plummeting in recent years, stayed flat. (The Catholic-school system lost about 100 kids, out of about 31,500 total.) Carroll suspects that forthcoming data will show an increase in enrollment for the coming school year, because virtually all of the former public-school parents are sticking with the archdiocese system, and new parents are coming in.

“We were on the verge of a wipeout. So, ironically, the teachers’ union saved Catholic education,” Carroll said. “It’s an incredible irony. Out of this adversity is born a great sense of optimism about Catholic schools.”

Matt McDonald is the editor of New Boston Post and a National Catholic Register correspondent.