Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Photo by Johnathon Kelso
An icon of Our Lady of Guadalupe sits in a classroom being prepared for the start of the new school year at Christ the King School in Atlanta. A hybrid mask policy has been adopted for this school year.


Atlanta Catholic schools to open doors with new mask policy

Published August 5, 2021

ATLANTA—Catholic school communities will start a second school year shadowed by the coronavirus. There is an uptick of infections in Georgia where vaccination rates are lagging.

Schools opened in the fall of 2020 with a multilayered strategy to keep the virus out of the schools. This included masks, daily health screenings, temperature checks and physical distancing in the school building. 

Some dubbed it a “Swiss cheese model” against the pandemic, adopting different layers of caution to reduce overall risk. 

Nearing a new school year, Superintendent Hal Plummer stated in a letter to parents the system is revising one position of the pandemic response. Students and staff will not be required to wear coverings at all times. Schools instead will follow a hybrid model, he said. 

Students will see a balance of a “positive ‘return-to-normal’ approach to the upcoming school year with the reality of current health guidelines,” he wrote in his July 23 letter. There will be no mask mandate “at all times and in all settings,” he said about the current situation. 

Students won’t need masks for recess, but they may be worn in the classrooms. Expect to wear masks at a school Mass, but fans may not need to in the stands for football.

At the three archdiocesan high schools, students will have the option to wear masks.

New CDC guidelines for schools 

On July 30, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status. Vaccinations are now available for students as young as 12. Some 16% of the 12-17 population in Georgia are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC COVID Data Tracker. 

The archdiocesan policy has been guided by an advisory group of medical and science experts assisting the Office of Catholic Schools. Data on any community and school virus transmissions will provide guidance for adjusting protocols as the year progresses and as vaccines become available for all age groups served by the schools.

The school year gets underway with a COVID-19 strain that is far more contagious. Some 38% of Georgia residents are fully vaccinated, compared to nearly 50% of Americans.

At the end of April 2021 students at St. Thomas More School, Decatur, enjoyed taking part in Rock ‘N Run, while sporting tie-dye masks. As new the school year approaches, the Office of Catholic Schools will have a hybrid mask policy. Students will not have to wear masks at recess or in all situations.

The Delta variant is not believed to be more serious for grade school children, however public health experts fear this strain could be carried home to adults who are not vaccinated. The unvaccinated are bearing the brunt of the latest surge in the virus.  

New mask rules for students and staff

With the plan, students and staff of elementary schools would be required to cover their nose and mouth when they are indoors and within 3 feet of each other for more than 15 minutes. Masking in high school is optional.  

At school Masses or other large indoor events, students should wear masks, according to the policy.  At outdoor events, coverings will not be required, unless in a crowded setting. On buses and other transportation, masks will be required by federal law.

Building on success 

The changes come after a successful school year when Catholic schools offered in-person learning year round when many public schools taught remotely for much of the year.   

With its prevention steps, the school system of more than 2,500 students faced a low positivity rate for the virus last year and summer programs that adopted this hybrid mask policy saw positive results, Plummer said. 

It is the second change in the school system as it balances evolving health concerns and educational issues. Earlier in the summer, the school system announced it would wind down the remote learning option for its students. 

Some parents have objected to the archdiocesan school plan. A petition has been signed by more than a 1,000 parents demanding the archdiocese consider making masks optional for all students this year. 

In his July 23 letter, Plummer acknowledged the mask policy is a challenging one. 

“Few issues since the pandemic began have elicited such strong and conflicting views. Our hope is everyone will continue to respect and support school leadership, and pray for an end to COVID-19,” he said. 

The superintendent said he hopes the Catholic school community brings the “same collective commitment” to keep schools open as in the last school year. 

Parents may opt to have their children wear masks at all times indoors and school staff will do their best to ensure family decisions are deeply respected, Plummer said.