During the pandemic, America conducted a vast social experiment on its children: The move to long-term online learning at many public schools, and how those students fared in comparison with Catholic school children who were free to quickly resume in-person learning. But even Catholic schools had to grapple with the effects of mask mandates on students and their parents.
Overall, parents of schoolchildren are probably the group most aggravated by three years of pandemic restrictions, and most eager to hold institutions and leaders accountable for the resulting harms – such as learning loss, social isolation, and psychological suffering among children.
Thankfully, much of this suffering – though not all – was avoided in the nation’s Catholic schools, especially the problem of massive public school shutdowns pushed by teachers’ unions and their political allies.
To see where Catholic schools succeeded, it should be recalled where public schools failed. Their widespread failures are increasingly acknowledged, even in liberal circles. In the second half of 2022, the left-leaning Atlantic Monthly published articles acknowledging that “school closures were a failed policy” and had caused “the biggest disruption in the history of American education.”
The latter article recounted how, within two weeks of the World Health Organization’s pandemic declaration, “every public-school building in the United States had been closed and 50 million students had been sent home. Half of these students would not reenter their schools for more than a year. No other high-income country in the world relied to such a great extent on remote instruction.” (Often, the authors observed, “physical school wasn’t replaced with Zoom school. Rather, physical school closures meant no school – literally none at all, for days and even weeks on end.”)
The author of the “failed policy” article, Derek Thompson, noted that school closures were not the only source of student problems during the pandemic. But the failures he cataloged were shocking: “Student achievement plummeted during COVID. The survey of fourth and eighth graders found that math scores fell in nearly every state. No state showed significant improvements in reading. The lowest-performing students saw the largest declines in achievement.”
By March 2023, even far-left National Public Radio was featuring the voice of a teacher who regretted her futile attempts to teach remote kindergarten classes: “We worked so hard and it didn’t make a difference. We should have stayed in school.”
In Catholic schools, things were very different, both in terms of in-person learning and academic achievement.
According to a February 2021 report from the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA), “more than 90 percent of Catholic schools were open for in-person learning and working within sanctioned health guidelines” during the first year of the pandemic. In contrast, less than 50 percent of public schools had fully reopened by March 2021, according to federal government data. NCEA noted that some Catholic school systems had seen increased enrollment during the 2020-2021 school year, with transfer students seeking in-person classes.
As the pandemic continued, this trend accelerated during the 2021-2022 school year, with a 3.8 percent increase in nationwide Catholic school enrollment that marked the first overall enrollment boost for 25 years. As NCEA observed, “safe in-person learning throughout the pandemic appears to have been central in driving the enrollment increase,” especially among very young children starting pre-kindergarten programs. A Manhattan Institute report discussed how the Covid boom in Catholic school enrollment could be extended, with the pandemic causing “a once-in-a-generation shift in parental demand for school choice.”
According to the Manhattan Institute, “recent public-school enrollment analyses reveal not only that public-school enrollment between 2020 and 2022 cratered but that the longer districts remained in remote or hybrid learning, the more dramatic their enrollment declines.” The US was notably extreme in the length of its closures, with children losing an average 71 weeks of in-person schooling as compared to 12 weeks in France, 15 in Spain, or 27 in the UK.
Public schools saw very poor educational results amid these lengthy closures. On the National Assessment of Education Progress tests (NAEP, sometimes called the “nation’s report card”), scores for 2022 showed alarming decline – including the worst drop in math scores ever recorded, as well as a drop in reading scores and no major improvement in any state’s average results.
The 2022 NAEP figures were described as “appalling” even by President Biden’s education secretary. And while the worst NAEP declines did not necessarily coincide with the longest school closures, it seems impossible to separate the overall test results from the immense disruption to American education – especially given other research, compiled by The Atlantic’s Thompson in his “failed policy” article, linking academic failures more clearly to the school shutdowns.
Further evidence for this link – not noted by Thompson, unfortunately – could be found by comparing the strong NAEP performance of Catholic schools on the 2022 tests, after they overwhelmingly opted for in-person classes. Catholic school students scored higher on the assessments than their public school peers, showing they did not suffer the historic learning problems found among public school children.
As a pair of analysts noted, “America’s Catholic schools defied these sobering trends. Students attending parochial schools experienced no meaningful decline in either subject [reading or math] on the latest NAEP.”
The National Catholic Educational Association summed up Catholic schools’ encouraging test outcomes by citing a commentator’s observation that, “If Catholic schools were a state, they would be the highest performing state in the country.”
A striking testimony to Catholic schools’ success during the pandemic came from two surprising sources: Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, and her city’s public school district.
Given Lightfoot’s politics, and the city’s reputation as a leftist stronghold, neither the mayor nor the city’s public schools would necessarily be expected to ally with the Church’s choice of keeping classrooms open.
Lightfoot, however, had at least some inclination to reopen schools in late 2020, saying she was “following very closely the experience of Archdiocese schools, many of which have been in-person learning five days a week … There’s a lot we can learn from their experience.”
Her regard for the Church’s quick reopening of schools stood in contrast with the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), which used its social media feed to declare – in peak 2020 fashion – that “the push to reopen schools is rooted in sexism, racism and misogyny.”
Moving into 2021, Chicago’s unionized teachers continued to clash with the mayor and the public school district over reopening. The district cited Catholic schools’ safe reopening as evidence that public schools could follow suit, while the union refused to comply with a reopening plan. A February 2021 report in Crain’s Chicago Business showed the union again rejecting Catholic schools’ successful strategy in favor of racial identity politics.
“National studies and the experience of local private and Catholic schools show that in-person instruction can be done safely with proper mitigations in place, according to the [public school] district,” Crain’s reported. “CTU has pushed back, saying that those studies don’t reflect the racial or demographic makeup of the nation’s third largest school district, and that private and Catholic schools tend to be more affluent.”
As the public schools and the teachers’ union fought over reopening in early 2021, the Chicago Tribune reported that “the phone lines at many of the city’s Catholic schools were jammed with calls this week from weary parents, inquiring how to enroll their children.”
In the end, Chicago public schools only fully reopened in August 2021 – a year after the city’s Catholic schools had welcomed students back for full-time in-person learning.
An official of the archdiocese, Justin Lombardo, told Chalkbeat in an October 2020 interview that “in a pandemic, there is no place where you are 100% safe. Everybody in our daily lives now unfortunately is accepting a level of risk.”
“Overwhelmingly, our teachers returned to the classroom,” Lombardo said. “And many, many, many were excited to do that.” He admitted there was “some hesitancy on the part of some.”
“But by and large, after the first couple of days, they breathed a sigh of relief, and were glad to be back in the classroom with the students. So the vast majority of our teachers showed up, took the job very responsibly, and have been heroes to us in their diligence and their dedication.”
In other respects – including the masking of children, detailed below, and the vaccine mandates discussed in this report upcoming next chapter – the Archdiocese of Chicago did not stand out as a model for leadership in the pandemic. But the contrast with Chicago’s public schools shows what America’s Catholic schools got right by remaining open in over 90 percent of cases. Across the country, a great deal of student suffering and academic trouble could have been avoided if public schools had followed Catholic schools’ lead.
Along with closures and remote classes, school mask mandates were another major hardship for children during the pandemic – affecting their learning, social and emotional functioning, and overall well-being, with unforeseeable and possibly long-term effects.
Some of these mandates were government-imposed in ways that made them difficult for any institution to fight in court, although a Michigan Catholic school notably tried. Other school mask mandates were imposed by Catholic bishops themselves, or by their lower-level officials – prompting public opposition from some frustrated parents, and a career-ending act of protest by one principal.
Under both the Trump and Biden administrations, the Centers for Disease Control issued guidelines promoting the masking of children as young as 2 years old (although the Trump-era guidelines were more flexible). Such guidance was significantly stricter than that of either the World Health Organization or the European CDC. It came to be seriously questioned even in the liberal mainstream media, especially given the far lower risks posed to children by Covid-19 and a lack of solid evidence that school mask mandates were effective.
Nonetheless, it’s estimated that around half of all schoolchildren were under mask mandates as late as February 2022 (after which the CDC changed its guidance, and even more restrictive states lifted school mandates).
Research by CatholicVote indicates that Catholic schools were generally compliant toward government-imposed mask mandates, or at least rarely opposed them openly. There were very few reported instances of defiance, or even protest, against such measures by dioceses or schools. (Of course, plenty of Americans in many settings quietly disobeyed mask mandates in ways that drew no publicity.)
Some readers will wish more had been done to publicly oppose government mask mandates, especially those imposed on schoolchildren. Before judging Catholic schools too harshly for their compliance, however, certain aspects of the legal landscape should be noted.
First, the punishments for open refusal of mask mandates could be very serious. A Protestant congregation in California, for instance, has been ordered to pay $1.2 million in fines for its defiance of masking and social distancing orders. Few if any Catholic schools could pay such a price and survive.
Second, under prevailing American legal doctrines, it is often very difficult to challenge public health orders in court.
If such an order was made within a government official’s lawful authority, as well as having some amount of evidence in its favor and serving a “legitimate” state interest, the order will almost certainly be upheld – unless it can be shown that the public health measure is discriminatory in certain forbidden ways, or that it threatens a right that courts regard as fundamental.
Even if discrimination or a threat to fundamental rights is shown, the government simply faces higher burdens of proof in justifying its actions. These judicial doctrines have been seriously criticized, especially by Justice Clarence Thomas – but for now, they can make it virtually futile to sue over a mask mandate.
Although mask mandates were frequently challenged in court, a September 2021 National Law Review article found that these lawsuits – employing a range of legal theories – met with “consistent failure.” The challenges failed because the mandates were viewed as plausibly related to a valid purpose on the part of the government, the customary “rational basis” test.
A few later lawsuits against mask mandates did succeed, but on more narrow and technical grounds that could not be readily broadened to other cases. Throughout the pandemic, the Supreme Court never ruled on, or even agreed to hear, any case on mask mandates. All these factors made it a difficult proposition to challenge state-imposed school masking.
The most prominent Catholic challenge to a government mask mandate was unsuccessful. Resurrection School, a Catholic school in Michigan, filed a lawsuit in October 2020 objecting to a government mask mandate on religious freedom grounds. Several of the school’s claims involved the ways in which masks interfered with the institution’s faith-based educational mission, although the lawsuit also attempted – more dubiously – to argue that masking violates Church teaching on human dignity.
Resurrection School lost, because the mandate applied equally to secular and religious schools (rather than singling out religious institutions), and was therefore deemed “neutral and generally applicable,” not discriminatory.
Church teaching allows for civil disobedience under certain conditions, and some Catholics chose not to comply with school mask mandates. In Colorado, Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Classical School was deemed “Denver’s All-Time Champion School Mask Rules Violator” by a local paper for its many citations over non-compliance. This apparently resulted in only a relatively small fine against the school – although it could have had more serious consequences, since Colorado’s public health department claimed the right to enforce its pandemic orders “by any appropriate legal means,” including jail sentences.
Perhaps even more controversial than state-imposed mask mandates, were those imposed on schools by the Catholic bishops or their diocesan officials.
Not all mask mandates in Catholic schools were imposed directly by bishops. A report from the National Catholic Register in July 2021 found that Catholic dioceses were moving away from diocese-wide mask mandates in schools, in favor of letting decisions be made at a local level. By February 2022, The Pillar found that most dioceses had adopted this approach for their schools, with a small number of bishops – mostly in more restrictive states – still requiring masks in all schools.
On the opposite side of the issue, Bishop Donald E. DeGrood of Sioux Falls stood out with his policy forbidding any mask mandates from being imposed in diocesan schools at the start of the 2021-2022 school year.
Some dioceses, such as the Diocese of Manchester, NH, opted for a “parent choice” policy as the 2021-2022 school year commenced.
Others, such as the Archdiocese of Miami, required unvaccinated children to wear masks in 2021-2022.
In August 2021, the Diocese of Dallas got severe blowback from parents when the policy of local control – allowing pastors and principals to determine mask policies – was replaced with uniform mandatory masking of the diocese’s 15,000 schoolchildren.
Some opponents of Dallas’ diocese-imposed mandate were allegedly threatened with the expulsion of their children (which the diocese said was due to parents violating a written agreement through disruptive behavior). A public campaign was launched “advocating for a return to local school control and the freedom of families to choose whether or not to wear masks,” and three parents rented billboard trucks to display messages opposing the school mask mandate on the streets around the diocese’s offices in late October.
It appears these protests may have worked. Local control over masking policy was restored to the Dallas diocese schools on November 12, 2021.
Another conflict over mandatory school masking arose in the Archdiocese of Chicago, which did not demonstrate the sort of leadership on this issue that it had shown in keeping schools open.
The Archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Cupich, was not unusual among bishops in complying with a government-imposed school mask mandate. However, the Archdiocese of Chicago took the remarkable further step of announcing it would continue mandatory school masking, even after a February 4, 2022 court ruling which blocked the government mandate from being enforced (on grounds that Governor J.B. Pritzker lacked authority to issue it).
Chicago’s superintendent of Catholic schools defended the continuation of universal masking as within the archdiocese’s legal rights (which was true, since the court order only bound the state), and as “guided by health data” (which was far less clear). A statement from the archdiocese also noted that the court ruling – a temporary restraining order – was not necessarily final, and “changing our policies back and forth” with later rulings could cause problems.
Following this announcement from the Chicago Archdiocese, the Principal of Queen of Martyrs School made his own announcement to parents.
“Independent of the mandate placed upon schools that operate under the auspices of the Office of Catholic Schools and the Archdiocese of Chicago, I have resolved that beginning tomorrow, Tuesday February 8th, the wearing of masks by members of our faculty, staff and student body will be optional,” wrote M. Jacob “Doc” Mathius, a four-decade veteran of Chicago Catholic schools.
In a letter to the school, Mathius said he had “made this decision in what I believe to be in the best interest of our students and their families,” after observing that “the social-emotional toll that continuing COVID protocols have taken on many of our students” had become “more toxic than the COVID virus itself.”
Mathius also contrasted the archdiocese’s courage in keeping schools open – something he was “proud to be part of” – with its reluctance to end mask mandates.
This case raises difficult theological questions about the limits of a bishop’s authority. Mathius appeared to understand the gravity of going against the Archdiocese in the matter, since he described his decision as “extremely difficult” and made with “a tremendous amount of thought and reflection.” In the end, however, the principal seemed to view the school mask mandate as the sort of clearly unjust policy which can, according to some theologians, be disobeyed without sin.
Mathius was suspended from his position, prompting public protests by those who hailed him as a “hero.” In the end, it was announced that the principal would leave Queen of Martyrs rather than accept what he described as “unreasonable” and “extreme” conditions laid down by the archdiocese for his return.
By February 10, however, the Archdiocese of Chicago had implemented an extremely sudden change in its own school masking policy. Masking abruptly became optional in Catholic schools, except where local health departments lawfully required it.
Archdiocese Superintendent Greg Richmond – who had described the previous policy as “guided by health data” just days before – now cited a “dramatic drop” in cases “within the past few weeks” in announcing the new policy.
Clearly, the strange fluidity of expert guidance and “the science” was seen in both Catholic and secular circles.
As politically contentious as masking has been, even an NPR outlet in one of the nation’s most liberal states is now willing to acknowledge that school mask mandates may be futile for public health as well as harmful to children. Likewise, a major study published by the CDC in 2021 did not find school mask mandates to be effective.
Leaders like Chicago’s Cardinal Cupich might be well advised to acknowledge such facts, and even ask forgiveness for some decisions. Perhaps Church leaders and officials would receive more credit for good policies, such as keeping schools open, if they were to admit that other policies were questionable or an outright mistake.
Many frustrated parents will never forget the ordeal of school masking, and some public accountability from bishops and Catholic school administrators on the issue would probably be welcome – “better late than never.”
About the Author: Benjamin Mann is a Byzantine Catholic and has written for several publications including Catholic News Agency, Catholic Exchange, and Real Clear Religion.
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