PHILADELPHIA (CNS) ─ The Archdiocese of Philadelphia is mandating that face masks be worn by students, faculty, staff and visitors in all archdiocesan schools starting Aug. 30.
The 15 archdiocesan high schools and 102 Catholic elementary schools are set to reopen for the fall term Sept. 8, with in-person instruction five days a week.
The archdiocese cited the continued spread of COVID-19 as the reasoning for requiring the face coverings as a safety precaution. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Aug. 20 that new cases of infection nationwide had increased 14% over the previous week.
Those not vaccinated against the virus are of particular concern. Children under age 12 are not eligible to receive the vaccine yet, so they remain at risk of contracting the virus via its highly transmissible delta variant.
The directive was made by the archdiocese "in the interest of ensuring a safe return to school" and "following the advice of the CDC (and) the guidance of local health departments" in the Philadelphia region, said Ken Gavin, chief communications officer for the archdiocese.
Letters from senior administrators in the Office for Catholic Education explaining the policy to parents of elementary school children and families of high school students were sent Aug. 24.
Gavin said he hoped the directive would be temporary and added that the education office's leadership "will review this policy every two weeks based on the level of community transmission, which may vary county to county. As with last year, plans will remain nimble pending the evolving pandemic landscape. Flexibility and parent partnership will be key.
"Our goals," Gavin said, "remain to provide a safe learning environment while delivering a high-quality Catholic education."
According to information titled "Catholic Schools Onward" on the Office for Catholic Education website, other protocols enacted since the start of the pandemic include social distancing of at least 3 feet between people, frequent hand washing and surface cleaning, use of masks and the possibility of remote learning, depending on the individual school.
And while daily health and wellness checks are the responsibility of parents, schools will monitor students' temperatures at random.
The mask mandate may become a recommendation if COVID-19 infection rates drop in the region, according to the education office's leaders.
"We recognize that some individuals may support this decision and that others may not," wrote Sister Maureen McDermott, a Sister, Servant of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who is superintendent of secondary schools, and Irene Hannan, CEO of Faith in the Future Foundation, in their letter to parents.
"All of us are fatigued by the impact of the virus, but we ask you to continue to work with us as we navigate this pandemic. It has caused all of us to make sacrifices, but working together we successfully managed to keep school communities safe while allowing Catholic education to flourish last year. We promise to work equally hard this year to ensure that your child has a safe and successful school year."
They strongly encouraged all eligible unvaccinated individuals to receive the full dosage, joining the call by many civic and church officials, and Pope Francis, to do so.
The CDC reports that about 60% of the total U.S. population has received at least one dose of the vaccine, and 51% are fully vaccinated. The daily vaccination rate over a seven-day period ending Aug. 19 has risen about 17% over the rate of the previous week.
Still, many Americans remain fearful of the COVID-19 vaccine, and some are seeking a religious exemption for receiving a dosage.
According to a directive Aug. 18, no priests or parishes in the Philadelphia Archdiocese should sign a letter or form granting such an exemption.
The archdiocese "strongly recommends" that all Catholics receive the vaccine, "based on the facts that the COVID-19 vaccines and their development have been determined morally acceptable and that we all share a common ethical responsibility to the well-being of our fellow human beings," said Gavin, citing guidance on the matter from the Vatican and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
"Being vaccinated safely against COVID-19," wrote the USCCB, "should be considered an act of love of our neighbor and part of our moral responsibility for the common good."
Should individuals seek an exemption for their own reasons of conscience, such a request "is not one for the local church or its clergy to validate," Gavin said, adding "neither the archdiocese nor its parishes are able to provide support" for exemptions.
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Gambino is director and general manager of CatholicPhilly.com, the news website of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.