Published: Sep. 05, 2021, on PennLive. Republished here with permission.
Editor’s Note: The Diocese of Harrisburg has updated this information to state it will be following the mask mandate from the Pennsylvania Department of Health and masking will be required in all of its schools as of Sept. 7.
By Sheela Jane Menon
As a Catholic, as an educator, and as the wife of a diocesan faculty member who has dedicated his entire career to teaching in Catholic schools, I am deeply disappointed that the Diocese of Harrisburg has reopened schools without a mask mandate. It is the simplest, most effective, and most immediate route to stemming the new and virulent strain of Covid-19.
Not doing so now, as the Delta variant rages and as COVID cases rise statewide and nationwide, is a clear sign that—contrary to their rhetoric—the Diocese is NOT prioritizing the safety of teachers, staff, and, especially, unvaccinated students.
Conditions during this devastating pandemic have changed significantly in a short period of time, and I would expect a pro-life church to recognize the severity of that change and to do everything it can to protect the health and dignity of those in its care – especially vulnerable young people and the faculty and staff who have devoted their lives to educating them.
The developments in recent months are significant and plainly indicate why a mask mandate is necessary. As of July 27, “the CDC recommends universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to schools, regardless of vaccination status.” As the New York Times reported in early August, the Delta variant is sending more children to hospital.
At the same time, NBC noted that “at least 81 children in the U.S. died of COVID between March and July, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and many doctors warn that the situation is likely to get worse.” Just this week, NPR reported that “nationwide between Aug. 5 and Aug. 12, about 121,000 children tested positive for the virus, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association. That’s a 23% increase over the prior week.” These numbers speak to what CDC and public health experts have repeatedly told the public based on unequivocal data: “the Delta variant [is] more infectious and [is] leading to increased transmissibility when compared to other variants, even in vaccinated individuals.”
We are seeing the impact of this variant here in Pennsylvania: COVID cases have increased by 85% in just two weeks. The CDC has designated every county in the state as having either “high” or “substantial” transmission rates and is “urging residents who live in counties with substantial or high levels of community transmission to wear masks in indoor spaces, no matter their vaccination status.”
Despite all this information and the threat it signifies, the Diocese chose to begin the fall semester without a mask mandate. I understand that plans for reopening were made earlier in the year, when cases were down and vaccine numbers were rising. But the situation has changed drastically.
We have examples of religious and higher ed leaders, both locally and nationwide, who have followed these developments and shifted their plans in order to take urgent and necessary precautions. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia has instituted a mask mandate. Catholic schools in Palm Beach, FL and Dallas, TX are requiring masks, as is my alma mater, Sacred Hearts Academy, in Honolulu.
Dickinson College, where I am a faculty member, required all students to be vaccinated in order to return for the fall semester. They recently instituted mask mandates in response to the Delta surge. And just this week, our Interim President, John E. Jones III, required that all employees become vaccinated following the FDA approval of Pfizer. President Jones articulated the rationale for these decisions very simply and directly: “We want to do what we can to keep our community healthy and have as normal a semester as possible.”
With hundreds in school all day, not socially distanced, and with the majority unmasked and many unvaccinated, why wait to take simple measures to safeguard health in our Catholic schools? Diocese schools stayed open last year thanks to mask mandates, daily symptom checks, and a host of other precautions. Why not continue these best practices?
In the midst of this latest surge, requiring students, faculty, and staff to wear masks sends a clear message of Gospel love, care, and compassion for one’s neighbors. It demonstrates that a small inconvenience is worth it for the sake of protecting one another and affirming the sanctity of life. It indicates that we truly value the faculty and staff who are returning to a second year of pandemic teaching feeling exhausted and burnt out.
As Pope Francis has asserted, safeguarding each other’s health and getting the Covid vaccine are acts of love. I expect nothing less for my husband, his colleagues, and the students they serve, day in and day out. I am begging the Diocese to reverse course, institute mask mandates and symptom checks at all Diocese schools, and encourage all Catholics to get the vaccine.It’s the pro-life thing to do.
Sheela Jane Menon, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of English at Dickinson College, where she teaches Asian American and world literature.
Note: The question of providing support for those wishing to claim a religious exemption to vaccination has not been consistently handled by the Catholic Church. The Catholic Diocese of Honolulu was clear about acknowledging that “individuals may have differing opinions for medical or moral reasons” but was equally clear that it “will not be granting religious exemptions from vaccine mandates imposed by others.” At a time when the Delta variant was sending cases in Hawai`i into the hundreds every week, this position helped reinforce the efforts of the authorities to increase vaccinations and ease the burden on Hawai`i’s already stressed hospitals and medical teams.
The Catholic bishops of Colorado took a very different stance. They welcomed Denver’s religious exemption and even offered a template for a letter clergy can use with parishioners requesting such an exemption.
Fortunately, across the United States many faith leaders have been firm in not allowing exemptions on religious grounds.
This banner in front of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Cathedral in Honolulu states the case for vaccination from a Christian perspective very clearly.