Tampa Bay Catholic schools change course: Masks required, but you can opt out

The Diocese of St. Petersburg amends its mask policy a day after the school year starts.
Catholic schools in the Tampa Bay area will temporarily require masks, but with the ability for students to opt out of the requirement.
Catholic schools in the Tampa Bay area will temporarily require masks, but with the ability for students to opt out of the requirement. [ Tribune News Service ]
Published Aug. 11, 2021|Updated Aug. 11, 2021

In a letter to parents Tuesday evening, the Diocese of St. Petersburg announced that its schools would be moving to a temporary mask mandate for students, with the ability for them to opt out of the requirement.

The move came a day after Catholic schools across Tampa Bay reopened for the 2021-22 school year.

The letter stated that the decision was made in conjunction with diocesan officials after they received further clarification on Gov. Ron DeSantis’ July 30 executive order banning mask mandates on the basis of parental rights.

The Catholic schools’ mask requirement will remain in place until the positivity rate drops below 10 percent in the diocese’ five-county region or case rate falls under 100 per 100,000 population, the letter said. In Pinellas County, where the diocese is headquartered, the positivity rate is 16.2 percent, county officials announced this week.

The Catholic system consists of 46 schools and early childhood centers in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties. Together they serve about 13,000 students.

The new policy is in line with what the Hillsborough County public school system decided this week as the academic year started — to require masks with an opt-out provision.

“The main goal is to keep students/staff healthy and school open all year long,” Christopher Pastura, school superintendent for diocese, wrote in the letter.

Over the weekend, more than 100 parents, teachers and alumni of Catholic schools across Tampa Bay signed an online letter, petitioning the diocese to require masks.

“The potential for a mask mandate policy to save even just one life is well worth the associated risk/cost of adopting such a policy in the State of Florida,” the letter stated, pointing to recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Pastura said he thinks the policy is not popular with all parents but accommodates their wishes too.

“We have to act in the manner that’s best going to serve our children and families,” he said. “In difficult times, we have to make difficult decisions.”

In his letter, Pastura encouraged parents to continue to err on the side of caution and keep their students at home if they feel unwell.

“Every family is encouraged to speak to their primary care physician about the benefits and risks of vaccinations and other preventative measures to keep your family and others safe,” he wrote. “As Catholics, we are called to help and support one another through our actions and prayers.”