Diocese issues school opening guidelines: parents to decide on masks, vaccinations

A bulletin board message is seen at Immaculate Conception School in Monmouth in this Catholic Post file photo. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

With a school system that covers 17,000 square miles across 26 counties, a one-size-fits-all approach for returning to school won’t work this year, according to Dr. Sharon Weiss, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Peoria. Rather, diocesan schools will employ a “layered prevention strategy” with local control and an emphasis on decision making by the parents.

“It will be the decision of a parent or guardian on whether or not their child will wear a mask or will be vaccinated,” said a statement released by the Diocese of Peoria on July 21.

“Our school administrators will regularly consult the Office of Catholic Schools and closely monitor local conditions. If there are changes that may occur based on this monitoring, the school will communicate these changes to its employees and families,” the guidelines for the opening of the 2021-22 school year added.

“Our school administrators will regularly consult the Office of Catholic Schools and closely monitor local conditions. If there are changes that may occur based on this monitoring, the school will communicate these changes to its employees and families.”

Weiss told The Catholic Post that these guidelines were developed after Zoom meetings with the Catholic school superintendents from the Dioceses of Belleville, Joliet, Rockford and Springfield, and the Archdiocese of Chicago, as well as consultation with Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, and Coadjutor Bishop Louis Tylka. The Office of Catholic Schools (OCS) also paid close attention to recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Illinois Department of Public Health, and the Illinois State Board of Education.

In addition, Weiss had the opportunity to be part of conference calls with local public school superintendents.

“We would like to approach it where we’ll add in strategies rather than start out with making everybody do the same thing,” Weiss said. “With individual consultation from the school based upon what they tell us and what other schools around them are doing . . . we can sit down and say, ‘OK, what do we need to do here?’”

The OCS guidelines also note that remote learning will not be offered as an alternative to in-class instruction as it was last year. The only exceptions are if positivity rates climb and mitigation strategies are needed, or a student is considered “medically fragile.”

LAYERED PREVENTION STRATEGIES

The layered prevention strategies recommended by the CDC include promoting vaccination; consistent and correct mask use; social and physical distancing; screening testing to promptly identify cases, clusters and outbreaks; ventilation; handwashing and respiratory etiquette; staying home when sick and getting tested; contact tracing, in combination with isolation and quarantine; and cleaning and disinfection.

Guidance from the CDC, which was also adopted by the Illinois Department of Public Health, recommends that masks be worn indoors by all individuals (age 2 and older) who are not fully vaccinated. On July 13, the Illinois State Board of Education said school administrators may implement layered prevention strategies in this regard based on local conditions.

“Now undoubtedly the Health Department has said the best way to mitigate this virus is with masks and we know that,” Weiss told The Post. “The rationale for (the OCS guidelines) is to allow parents to be parents and make the decisions for their children. If it ramps up in the schools, we will come in and put in some measures.”

School employees will have the choice on whether or not to wear a mask.

While there are vaccinations that are required at certain grade levels, such as for the mumps or measles, the COVID-19 vaccination is not one of them at this time. A family’s decision for or against this may not be made public by the school or become part of a discussion about who should be wearing a mask, Weiss said.

All of this is in keeping with Catholic Church teaching that parents are the primary educators of their children, she explained.

REMOTE LEARNING

“At the end of the school year, I heard consistently from the schools that the teachers and the principals were so incredibly tired and, for lack of a better word, burned out from having to deliver two different models for instruction. We have excellent teachers in our schools and because they’re excellent they’re going to go above and beyond,” Weiss said.

For that reason, remote learning will not be offered as an alternative to being in class this year unless it is necessary during an outbreak of COVID-19 or if a student must stay away because he or she is “medically fragile.”

Weiss has asked the schools to update their remote learning plans and have them ready to implement, however.

“We’ve watched how this crazy virus works. We could all be back to remote learning,” she said, as was the case before and after Thanksgiving last year. “But we’re ready. We’ve had a year-and-a-half to perfect this.”

Weiss said she is looking forward to the new school year, which starts next month for the 42 Catholic elementary and secondary schools across the Diocese of Peoria.

“I couldn’t be more proud of the schools,” she said, praising the “tremendous” teachers and administrators, and “wonderful” staff, volunteers and families. “I’m looking forward to them doing what they do best — forming our children and educating them in the faith and in academics.”

GUIDELINES IN OTHER ILLINOIS DIOCESES

Also releasing guidelines for the reopening of Catholic schools and religious education programs were the Diocese of Rockford’s Catholic Education Office on July 15, the Archdiocese of Chicago on July 20, and the Diocese of Joliet on July 21. In recent days, Catholic school families in the Diocese of Belleville have heard from Jonathan Birdsong, superintendent, and the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois has offered guidance, too.

All announced a return to in-person learning with a normal schedule and a commitment to providing academic and faith-filled programs in a safe learning environment.

Masks are not required for fully vaccinated students, teachers or staff, although they are recommended for those who are not. Unless circumstances change, parents will determine if their children wear masks.

Safety protocols such as maintaining three feet of distance within classrooms, handwashing and sanitizing, and daily cleaning procedures will remain in place in all six dioceses. The Diocese of Springfield added that other safety measures will be implemented by each school individually.

As with the Diocese of Peoria, vaccinations are encouraged for everyone over the age of 12 “for the sake of everyone’s health and our collective ability to fully overcome the COVID-19 virus,” said Justin Lombardo, chief human resources officer and chair of the Archdiocesan COVID-19 Task Force in Chicago.

Noting that decisions about COVID-19 mitigations are personal, Birdsong appealed for charity.

“It is imperative that we remember that our schools are institutions of the Catholic Church. This heightens our responsibility to embrace and defend the dignity of the human person,” he said. “As we move forward in this next stage of school operations during a pandemic, we ask you to remember the dignity of the human person and to show respect for all, especially those who may arrive at a different decision.”

He also asked for prayers for those who have been negatively impacted by the virus, for an end to the pandemic, and for a successful and safe school year.

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