Diocese institutes universal mask protocol for schools

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The Diocese of Nashville has instituted a universal mask protocol effective Wednesday, Sept. 1, after seeing an increasing number of COVID-19 cases among students and faculty in the first four weeks of the school year. 

The decision came after collecting data from all the diocesan schools and in consultation with pastors and principals, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Rebecca Hammel said in a letter to parents. 

“With just a few school exemptions, all students, faculty, staff and guests, regardless of vaccination status, must wear a mask while indoors on our campuses and on buses,” Hammel wrote in her letter. 

“We realize neither masks nor vaccinations are 100 percent effective against this virus, but each provides a layer of protection that can reduce transmission among our students, employees, and family members at home,” she said. “This protocol will be evaluated Sept. 29 and every fourth week after until we see the effects on our schools return to the levels more closely aligned to last school year.” 

On Aug. 16, the diocese informed parents that while respecting Gov. Bill Lee’s Executive Order #84, which allows parents to determine whether their children would wear masks in school, diocesan officials would continue to track the effects of the COVID-19 virus on the 16 diocesan schools. 

Diocesan officials conducted live conference calls with principals and pastors each day for the previous two weeks, Hammel said in her letter. “A local hospital administrator reported on trends and hospital utilization and principals or pastors shared their school data points,” including school attendance rates, the number of new COVID cases and new quarantine numbers. 

The week of Aug. 2, there were two new COVID cases reported in the diocesan schools. The number of new cases increased to 23 the week of Aug. 9, to 27 the week of Aug. 16, and to 60 the week of Aug. 23. The cumulative number of cases during the week of Aug. 23 was 112. 

The number of quarantines and isolations increased from 115 during the week of Aug. 16 to 340 the week of Aug. 23.  

“Counts from Monday, Aug. 30, take our cumulative cases to 128 and 397 quarantined. A couple of schools have already had to quarantine large numbers of students in a classroom and on a couple of occasions, full-class quarantines,” Hammel wrote. 

The increasing numbers prompted a video call for diocesan officials, principals and pastors on Wednesday, Aug. 25, to discuss the situation, Hammel said.  

“Consensus of the leaders on the call was to institute masks universally,” she said. “Bishop (J. Mark) Spalding then issued a letter Thursday, Aug. 26, to all pastors and school principals indicating the diocese’s intent to institute a universal mask protocol in our schools effective Sept. 1, affording time for pastors to consult with him about the proposal.  

“Throughout this time, medical advisors continued to advocate for masks to be worn by all while indoors on our campuses,” Hammel added. 

“Two schools are granted an exemption from this mask protocol: St. John Vianney in Gallatin and Sacred Heart School in Lawrenceburg,” Hammel said in her letter. “St. John Vianney, a school of 100 students, has experienced zero cases of COVID-19 and their attendance rates are above the average currently observed in our schools. Sacred Heart in Lawrenceburg, a school of 85, has experienced some cases, though they are traced to adult or home contacts. 

“St. Patrick School, a school of 120 and zero cases, will maintain their modified mask protocol as they continue to return to school after devastating floods,” which struck Humphreys County on Aug. 21 killing 20 people and destroying many homes, Hammel said. “All three will continue to monitor and will initiate further measures in consultation with the diocese, including masks, if warranted. These three schools represent 3.5 percent of our total enrolled population. No other school exceptions will be made at this point. 

“The universal mask protocol is for all families,” Hammel said. “Gov. Lee’s Executive Order 84 does not exempt a family from complying in a private school setting. All individuals indoors on our campuses are to wear a mask until further notice. Students without a mask will be given a mask; refusal to wear a mask will prevent the student from classroom participation at this time.” 

Parents will be able to monitor diocesan case counts and quarantine numbers online at www.dioceseofnashville.com/catholic-schools/covid, Hammel informed parents. “You will also find common protocols there, though please note each school adapted diocesan policies to their own school building and shared those with each family prior to the start of the year,” she added. 

On Tuesday, Aug. 31, the Tennessee Department of Health website listed 1,051,089 COVID-19 cases in the state since the pandemic began. A recent surge in cases pushed the number over 1 million earlier in August. There have been 183,681 cases reported since July 4, or 17.4 percent of the total number of cases in the state throughout the pandemic.  

In her letter, Hammel noted that diocesan schools were able to successfully complete last school year with in-person instruction, even when the cases in the broader community were as high as they are now.  

“In fact, last year, our highest case count in any one given week was 42, which occurred the week of Nov. 23, 2020,” Hammel said. “At the height of community cases the third week of December 2020, our case count was 38. In all of school year 2020-21, we only had 30-plus cases in a week on six occasions.” 

Hammel acknowledged the start of the school year has been difficult for parents, “partly due to the shift of masking protocols from the diocese. We have heard the voices of so many, both supporting and challenging school-wide and diocesan-wide decisions. I urge you to prayerfully contemplate the difficult position to which our school leaders were forced. Please understand each one is balancing this pandemic, its new variants and effects, with the duties and responsibilities of managing the school and parish.  

“Fortunately, the activities inside our classrooms are joy-filled and students are learning,” Hammel added. 

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