National News

Catholic Schools Tackle Mask Mandates in Washington, Other Cities

PROSPECT HEIGHTS — The superintendent of the Archdiocese of Washington Catholic schools on Feb. 17, told parents of students that despite a desire to make masks optional, her hands are tied because of the city’s recent school mask mandate.

Students board a school bus in Arlington, Va., Jan. 25, 2022.  (Photo: CNS/Evelyn Hockstein, Reuters)

“The Archdiocese is reviewing these requirements and advocating with city officials to make face coverings optional for our school families in the District,” said Kelly Branaman, the Archdiocese of Washington superintendent and secretary of Catholic schools in a letter to parents. “We invite parents to do the same.”

In the same letter, Branaman announced that beginning next week masks will no longer be required in the archdiocese’s Maryland schools, answering calls from archdiocesan parents to do away with the mandate. The move adds the Archdiocese of Washington to the growing list of dioceses that are moving away from mandatory masking.

There are 90 Catholic schools in the archdiocese located in Washington, D.C., and five Maryland counties: Calvert, Charles, Montgomery, Prince George’s, and St. Mary’s. At least a dozen of the schools are in Washington D.C.

The announcement of the policy change from Branaman comes a day before a letter from parents in the archdiocese calling for a mask-optional policy for all students was set to be delivered to Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington. The letter was posted and could be signed through a website for archdiocesan parents,

The letter would’ve called on the archdiocese to change its mask mandate because “compassion, science, and respect for parental authority all point towards ending mask mandates within our Catholic schools.” It also acknowledges the possibility the mandate could be lifted for the schools in Maryland, but not Washington, D.C.

“If you [Cardinal Gregory]) conclude you do not have this authority in the District, we ask that you forcefully advocate for change directly with the Mayor and that you otherwise explore all available legal options to implement mask choice in Washington,” the letter reads.

Cardinal Gregory is no stranger to taking legal action against Washington mayor Muriel Bowser. The archdiocese sued Bowser at the end of 2020 over COVID-19 attendance limits.

As it stands, Bowser’s current executive order will keep a mask mandate for schools through the beginning of March. She has signaled that because the youngest students can’t yet get vaccinated she doesn’t anticipate that “we’re going to have a decision about schools sometime soon.”

In the letter to parents, Branaman cited that Maryland and Washington, D.C. have two of the highest vaccination rates in the country and the reality that case numbers have continued to drop locally over the past month. Drawbacks of masking children expressed by experts, changing requirements for mask-wearing in other indoor settings, and guidance from local and national experts were other factors, she said.

Branaman also noted that the optional approach appeases people on both sides of the argument.

“This will enable our parents and staff to decide what they feel is right based upon their own situations,” she said. “This approach balances the desires of those parents, students, and staff who wish to continue to wear masks with those who do not, while still keeping our schools safe.”

The inconsistent approach the Archdiocese of Washington is forced to take highlights the reality that some dioceses are left in difficult situations when it comes to mask policies.

The Archdiocese of Chicago is in a similar situation where masks are optional where local health authorities don’t have a mandate in place, and masks are mandatory where masks are required. Also, in the archdioceses of Baltimore and Philadelphia, masks are optional in some counties, but the mandate remains in others.

The Archdiocese of New York and Diocese of Brooklyn are stuck with mask mandates at all of their Catholic schools until the court decides whether or not Gov. Kathy Hochul’s administration has the authority to require masks be worn. Both dioceses have called for an end to the mandate.

The Arlington and Richmond dioceses in Virginia lifted mask mandates at the end of January. The Archdiocese of Boston has announced it will lift all mask mandates on Feb. 28, and the Archdiocese of Newark announced on Feb. 16 that masks will be optional for students in archdiocesan schools beginning March 7.

There are countless other examples nationwide of different approaches to mask mandates, though, in recent weeks more and more dioceses have made a shift.

In the Archdiocese of Washington, Branaman didn’t rule out the possibility of implementing a mask mandate in the letter to parents, saying that “if a major spike in cases, or a serious variant emerges … we will consult with medical experts and public health officials for guidance.”