A sign requiring masks is posted on a classroom door at Immaculate Conception School in Revere in Sept. 2020. On July 29, Superintendent of Catholic Schools Thomas Carroll confirmed that the Schools' Office policy announced in May 2021 remains in effect: schools in the archdiocese may not mandate vaccinations or that masks be worn by vaccinated students or staff. Pilot photo/Gregory L. Tracy
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BRAINTREE -- With the new school year approaching and the Delta variant of the coronavirus spreading, many are wondering about Catholic schools' policies on masks and vaccinations.
The archdiocese's superintendent of schools has confirmed that their position remains the same as announced last May: Catholic schools cannot mandate the vaccination of students or staff, and each school is authorized to develop its own mask policy, which cannot require vaccinated individuals to wear masks.
Archdiocesan Superintendent Thomas Carroll summed up the situation in a July 29 Twitter post: "The Boston Archdiocese is allowing its Catholic schools to individually decide mask policies. Universally, however, no vaccinated person will have to wear a mask and we will not mandate vaccination. As always, we will continue to monitor the science and health data."
In late July, both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, issued recommendations that everyone in schools -- including those who are vaccinated -- wear masks.
On July 30, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (SESE) issued a memo in conjunction with the state's Department of Public Health (DPH) in which the agencies "strongly recommend that all students in kindergarten through grade six wear masks when indoors, except students who cannot do so due to medical conditions or behavioral needs. Masks are not necessary outdoors and may be removed while eating indoors."
"DESE and DPH also strongly recommend that unvaccinated staff in all grades, unvaccinated students in grades seven and above, and unvaccinated visitors wear masks indoors," the memo said.
Speaking to The Pilot on Aug. 2, Carroll clarified that DESE does not have authority over Catholic schools, so its guidance does not automatically apply to them, though the Catholic Schools Office's rules refer to DESE's guidance.
The Catholic Schools Office (CSO) published its rules regarding coronavirus protocols on their website on May 28. For the fall of 2021, instruction is expected to be in-person five days a week. Every Catholic school must report new coronavirus cases by the end of each day. Parents may request that their own children wear masks, but teachers are not required to enforce such requests.
Carroll said he thinks the prospect of not having to wear a mask motivated many people to get the vaccine.
"The presumption always was that if you were vaccinated, then you didn't have to wear a mask. I think that was the motivation for a lot of people sitting on the fence," he said.
The coronavirus vaccine is currently available for those age 12 or older. This fall, Carroll said, over two-thirds of children over 12 will be vaccinated. For children under 12, principals will have the ability to develop their school's policy on masks, in consultation with parents and teachers, based on the coronavirus data in the community they serve.
The Archdiocese of Boston is the largest school district in Massachusetts and has "a great deal of variety" in its demographics, Carroll pointed out.
"It's not the same everywhere. And so, we have schools serving all different kinds of populations, all across a large geographic territory," he said.
One of the concerns last year, he said, was the possibility that a child might pass the virus on to elderly family members. But in Massachusetts, the vaccination rate among the elderly is between 80 and 90 percent, depending on the area.
Hospitalization and death rates indicate that people who are not vaccinated against the coronavirus are 25 times more likely to have a negative outcome. Even when the vaccine does not prevent someone from getting the virus, it can greatly reduce the impact.
"Given all of that, we have not seen a compelling case to put masks on kids or teachers who are vaccinated," Carroll said.
Carroll did impose a mask mandate for the 2020-2021 school year, when there was no vaccine available and levels of transmission were high. And in March 2020, he closed the Catholic schools even before then-Mayor Marty Walsh closed the Boston public schools or Gov. Charlie Baker closed schools across the state to prevent the spread of the virus.
The continuity between these decisions, Carroll said, is that they are following the health data.
"If the data starts getting sharply negative, then we'll revisit our decision. But where the data is today, we're sticking with the May decision for now," he said.
He applauded Gov. Baker's efforts to promote coronavirus vaccination in Massachusetts.
"We're in a state where the governor did a really good job getting people vaccinated and, as a result, we have very low transmission rates," Carroll said.
He spoke of the unusual level of collaboration between Gov. Baker, a Republican, and Boston mayor Walsh, a Democrat, who was succeeded by interim mayor Kim Janey, also a Democrat.
"We have the luxury of taking this nuanced approach based on the data because things aren't going wild. And they're not going wild because (Gov.) Baker and the mayor did a really good job getting a lot of people vaccinated," Carroll said.
The Catholic Schools Office's coronavirus rules for fall 2021 can be found at CSOBoston.org/announcement-greater-flexibility-regarding-covid-rules-catholic-schools-fall-2021.