Parents are pushing back against an Archdiocese of Boston mandate that restricts local Catholic schools from requiring vaccinated students or staff members to wear masks.
With just weeks prior to the launch of school, Thomas W. Carroll, superintendent of Catholic schools for the archdiocese, is coming under fire over his decision.
The choice to restrict universal mask mandates is “utterly baffling, reckless, and negligent based upon what public health experts are telling us today,” said Diane Nealon, whose 8-year-old son attends Blessed Sacrament School in Walpole.
Nealon would prefer that Carroll not only drop the ban but require masks for everyone in Catholic schools. She also wants them to continue following other protocols, such as distancing between desks and cracked windows for ventilation.
“They did such a good job last year,” she said. “They need to continue to provide safe, supportive places for learning.”
In a guidance first published in May and updated earlier this month, the Catholic Schools Office said that anyone who wants to wear a mask should be supported in their decision, but “no vaccinated student, teacher, or staff member should be mandated to wear a mask indoors.” The only exceptions are for specific areas such as nurse’s offices or when students are working in “very close contact.”
For unvaccinated students, schools are given the choice to either allow families to decide whether to mask children, require students to wear masks in classrooms with immunocompromised students or teachers, or require all unvaccinated students to mask up. Schools have been asked to create their policy for unvaccinated children by considering the level of vaccination within the school, age, demographics, historic COVID-19 caseload, and input from parents and staff members.
Schools also can require masks for everyone if their local board of health requires it, Carroll told the Globe.
“If there’s any order from the state or a local health board, all of our schools have been advised to instantly comply,” he said.
For example, due to a federal order, masks will be required for anyone on school buses.
The guidance cites the school recommendations released by Massachusetts’ education and public health agencies, which strongly recommend all unvaccinated students and staff members wear masks, but do not explicitly recommend masks for vaccinated students.
Governor Charlie Baker, however, has criticized governors who have banned local authorities from mandating masks for everyone. Despite pressure to create a universal mask mandate for schools, Baker has repeatedly defended his choice to give local officials the authority.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics both have recommended schools require masks indoors for everyone, regardless of vaccination status — a position teachers unions, medical groups, and many parents have implored Baker to take.
Carroll said he simply didn’t see enough evidence to justify letting schools mandate masks for vaccinated students or staff. However, he emphasized, he and his team are tracking the data closely and are willing to change their policy if the situation changes.
“If it turns out that the hospitalizations go up dramatically or we start seeing spread within our schools or something else, then we’ll reconsider the position,” he said.
“I’m not into the mask wars,” he added. “I’m not into the vaccination wars. We’re trying to do what we think is best given the conflicting guidance we have from state and federal authorities.”
The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston includes about 100 schools in the region, but Carroll only has operational control over 69 of them. Many begin their academic year shortly after Labor Day.
For Michelle Miller, whose two sons also attend Bless Sacrament, the rules on universal masking has led her to even consider other schooling options for the coming academic year.
“It feels very anxiety-ridden given that we’re two weeks away from the start of school,” she said. “Given that so many children aren’t yet eligible for vaccinations, it seems like a no-brainer that we should require masks until that’s an option.”
Keri Rodrigues, founder of Massachusetts Parents United and the mother of two Catholic school students, said a group of 50 to 75 parents has been meeting regularly to push for mask mandates in their individual communities and districts. Rodrigues, who also has two other children in non-Catholic district schools, hopes Baker will issue a public health order on universal mask-wearing that would force Carroll’s hand.
Saint Theresa of The Child Jesus School in Somerville, where her incoming fourth and third graders attend, sent a notice to families this week stating that masking will be required for unvaccinated students but optional for vaccinated ones, she said.
“Frankly, this has been the whole problem during the pandemic,” she said. “These folks are left to kind of figure these things out on their own. Carroll is not an epidemiologist for crying out loud.”
Neither are Baker or Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley, she pointed out. But the buck has to end with someone, she said.
“Until the governor makes this a public health issue,” she said, “the schools and frankly the diocese are doing what they can, what they want to.”