Mask mandate compliance brings mixed emotions as school prepare to reopen

The 42 Catholic schools in the Diocese of Peoria will follow Gov. JB Pritzker's mandate for universal masking in all schools in Illinois, from pre-kindergarten through high school, according to a statement released Aug. 4 by Dr. Sharon Weiss, superintendent. (Catholic Post file photo/Jennifer Willems)

With Gov. JB Pritzker’s Aug. 4 announcement that students, teachers and visitors in all schools and day cares in Illinois would be required to wear masks, regardless of vaccination status, has come mixed emotions for parents enrolling their children in the 42 Catholic elementary and secondary schools of the Diocese of Peoria.

That includes disappointment that they will be unable to determine what is best for their children in regard to masking, as had been the plan announced by the diocese’s Office of Catholic Schools on July 21.

A statement released by Dr. Sharon Weiss, superintendent of those schools, directed them to comply with the governor’s executive order. The decision was approved by Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, and Coadjutor Bishop Louis Tylka.

“The Catholic Diocese of Peoria has the greatest concern and care for God’s children, and we will do what is required by the Governor to, hopefully, eradicate COVID-19 and its variants,” she said. (See the full statement here.)

Some parents have said they would defy the governor’s executive order and send their children to school without masks — withdrawing them if their children must wear face coverings again this year. 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 said she had received a petition with 400 signatures urging her not to make students wear masks, and shared that the other Illinois Catholic school superintendents have received similar anti-masking letters or emails as they have been directed to comply with the governor’s executive order via their bishops and Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, too.

Noncompliance isn’t an option, she explained in a clarifying memo sent to parents and guardians through their Catholic schools on Aug. 9.

UNDERSTANDING, ASSISTANCE REQUESTED

“During a worldwide pandemic, the governor has the authority to declare a public health emergency and to order schools — public and nonpublic — to comply with the Illinois Department of Public Health’s advisement to wear masks and implement other measures in order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and its variants,” she wrote, adding that any school that chooses to be defiant may face adverse consequences.

For example, all of the diocesan schools have been recognized by the Illinois State Board of Education and that recognition could be removed, Gov. Pritzker said during his Aug. 4 press conference.

He may also close a school that refuses to comply, according to Weiss.

“During a worldwide pandemic, the governor has the authority to declare a public health emergency and to order schools — public and nonpublic — to comply with the Illinois Department of Public Health’s advisement to wear masks and implement other measures in order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and its variants.” — Dr. Sharon Weiss, Superintendent of Catholic Schools, Diocese of Peoria

In addition, Catholic Mutual Group, the diocesan insurer, has recommended following mandates or guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as those on the state, county and local level.

“Disregarding them could be considered gross negligence associated with the COVID-19 response and could subject the schools to unnecessary liability,” Weiss said in the memo.

“As superintendent, I will not put our schools at risk by not complying,” she said. “Our bishops have directed the Office of Catholic Schools to ensure that our Catholic schools do comply with the governor’s mandate, thus ensuring a safe environment for in-person learning to occur. I ask for your understanding and assistance.”

FOLLOWING POLICIES

Younger children who come to school without a mask or older students who refuse to wear one will be sent home, the Aug. 9 memo states.

If the situation persists, Weiss said the principals have been directed to contact families with the message that parents/guardians will be asked to withdraw their children from the school as would be the situation if a student did not comply with any other policies and procedures of their Catholic school.

“I hope it never comes to this,” she said.

“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. “It is not our intention to terminate any student’s enrollment, but we will be forced to if there is not compliance.”

Classes will resume for most Catholic schools in the Diocese of Peoria this week.

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