All six Catholic high schools in Arkansas require masks indoors for students, faculty and staff for the start of the school year.
Mount St. Mary Academy principal Sara Jones admitted she was hopeful in the summer, but with rising COVID-19 cases and the highly contagious delta variant, masking was a “no brainer.”
“At the beginning of August we knew there was no way to get around it. End of the (last school) year was looking so hopeful,” Jones said, but added, “I’m optimistic it’s not going to be for the full year.”
The diocesan Catholic Schools Office instituted a mask mandate for elementary schools in the state, given that those 11 and younger are not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. High school masking, however, was left up to each school.
According to Aug. 24 Arkansas Department of Health statistics, there were 23,576 active cases of COVID-19 in the state. A total of 6,704 people in Arkansas have died of the virus. More than 1.1 million out of 3 million Arkansas residents -- 36 percent -- have been fully vaccinated.
Catholic High principal Steve Straessle said the Little Rock school, with 715 students, released a masks-optional plan last month, but changed to masks-required as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines now recommend masks indoors even for vaccinated individuals.
“It seems like everybody has a friend who is a physician or in the medical field who will tell you it’s worse than it really is or that it’s overblown. It seems like there is so much conflicting advice even from the experts,” Straessle said. “So we have defaulted to the CDC and the ADH as our governing bodies when it comes to health. We do take advice from our resources at UAMS and so forth and use that to weigh our options in a deliberative manner.”
At the principals retreat July 27-28, MSM’s Jones said they were connected with medical staff thanks to the superintendent's office.
“We were able to listen to a doctor give his opinion on the matter,” Jones said.
There are 441 students this year at the all-girls Little Rock school and temperatures will be taken each day.
Catholic schools in Conway, Morrilton and Subiaco serve more than just high school students, with younger grades on the same campus.
“We’re one school so if one group is required, I feel that we have to” require it for all, said Sacred Heart School principal Buddy Greeson. “I think it’s the safest way to go. I feel like the masks help limit the spread.”
The school has 99 seventh-12th-grade students in one building. In some situations, if 6-foot distancing can be achieved, they will not have to wear masks.
St. Joseph School in Conway, which has 202 seventh-12th-grade students, will, like the other schools, also require visitors to wear masks inside.
Subiaco Academy, a boarding and day school for boys, has 140 seventh-12th-grade students. Headmaster Dr. David Wright said their mask requirement is fluid. For the first 10 days of school, masks are required indoors. After that, it will be reevaluated daily.
“We asked our teachers to be flexible,” Wright said, adding if it’s a small classroom size, “if they can spread out within the classroom safely and have the distancing in place, we’re telling them they can take their masks off.”
Ozark Catholic Academy in Tontitown, with 85 students, also allows mask breaks if distancing can be achieved in classrooms.
“It’s a good move for our community because of the height of, the rise of the current delta variant that’s out there and the severity it hits,” said principal John Rocha, whose wife is a physician. “Not only that it spreads very quickly, but the severity of how they feel whether they've had the vaccine, or more severe if they haven't.”
Schools are not offering virtual learning this fall.
Parent reactions to the mask mandates have been a mixed bag.
“It’s just like it was last year, it’s about half and half. About half are thankful we required them and half are frustrated by it. It’s definitely both sides of the fence,” Greeson said.
Tucker said most parents in Conway stayed silent on the matter.
“This is a very hot topic right now. It’s very politicized and you know parents are entitled to their opinions and their beliefs,” he said. “So it’s unfortunate we have lost students because of mask wearing.”
The school has lost at least two high school students because of the mandate.
“I can live with parents that are upset,” he admitted, adding, “It’s about caring for these students. It’s about caring for the faculty and staff. And families.”
All schools stated that mask wearing and social distancing kept their schools open and in-person last year, which is the goal.
“The only thing that has been questioned to me by some parents is the emotional and mental well-being of students,” Wright at Subiaco Academy said. “Although I agree with people that it can negatively affect any and all of us in some way, I read this summer the greatest effect … was the disruption of school.”
Subiaco Academy did not close at all last year because of COVID-19.
Rocha said OCA reached out to about 20 families before making a firm decision on mask-wearing to find out their opinions. No matter where parents stood on the issue, the response was “we trust you.”
Straessle explained a mask is a “minor nuisance,” but going fully virtual is “intolerable.”
“I would emphasize the big picture,” he said to parents who may not agree with the mask mandate. “A school year is filled with these important events, these casual conversations -- the subtle, the sublime, the mundane; that all comes to form a school year which is a transformative point in a child’s life. If the only difference in all of that is that kids have to wear a mask, that is a sacrifice very well worth making.”
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