As students prepare to return to classes, the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg stands ready to greet them at its schoolhouse doors.
“We’re going to do everything we can to keep the children safe when they come to school,” said Chris Pastura, superintendent of schools for the diocese.
But the system cannot make blanket guarantees that everyone will be protected from the effects of COVID-19, Pastura acknowledged. So on Monday, it sent a letter to the parents of its nearly 13,000 students asking, among other things, that they sign a waiver of liability for the diocese if their children become ill — or worse — because of the virus.
At least one mom was outraged by what she called the “death release.”
“As Catholics, we are taught to respect life,” said Lucy Ramon, who has a sixth-grader at Cathedral School of St. Jude in St. Petersburg. “However, the diocese is not respecting our own children’s lives by forcing us to give up their rights and expectation to be safe at school.”
She had concerns about the system’s cleaning protocols and social distancing procedures, and worried that masks will be ineffective if children still have recess, physical education and sports without them.
“How can we trust that our kids’ safety is actually being taken seriously when the school allows such risky behavior AND tells us that if our child gets sick, it’s not their fault?” Ramon said via email. “I just cannot accept that."
She expected the waiver would upset more families as they read through their back-to-school documentation.
For some, though, it didn’t raise red flags.
Pasco County parent Jeannine Glover, who sends her child to Bishop Larkin Catholic School in Port Richey, said she had no problem with the form. She viewed it as the system trying to protect itself from a litigious society.
“I believe it’s God’s plan when I die, my plan doesn’t matter so I live my life without fear!” Glover said via Facebook chat. “If I want to do online schooling they have it available, if I want to send my child to Bishop Larkin Catholic School then I sign the paper and send him.”
Pastura said he hoped more people would see it that way. He noted the waiver was officially titled “Statement of Understanding and Release of Liability in Regard to Covid-19,” and said those words were selected intentionally.
“We wanted to first educate our parents just about the assumption of risk,” he said. “When they make choices to send their children back to school, there is a risk in every activity.”
He likened the form to one that parents sign when their children participate in sporting or other events where injuries or worse might occur, and suggested that it needed to discuss the worst case scenarios.
“We’re trying to be very upfront about the potential dangers of COVID,” Pastura said, adding that the diocese has prepared plans including contact tracing, cohort groups for classes and face masks to protect everyone on campus as much as possible.
And that’s where they want the students to be.
“We think it’s important for kids to be back in school whenever possible,” he said.
Area school districts have had similar conversations about waivers.
As one of his last acts in office, former Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association president Mike Gandolfo warned his members not to sign any health waivers the district might request. He said it was a preventive move, after seeing the Lee County school district ask employees to voluntarily release the district from liability if they became ill or died after returning to campus during the pandemic.
Pinellas district officials said they had no current plans to implement waivers.
The Pasco County school district had parents sign such forms for their children to participate in paid summer child-care programs on campuses. Deputy superintendent Ray Gadd said the administration had discussed extending the practice to traditional school.
“I don’t think so,” Gadd said of the likelihood of using the waiver form. “But we’re still tossing it around.”
As far as the diocese goes, superintendent Pastura said he hoped the document would not become a point of contention. There’s already so much fear and anxiety surrounding the coronavirus, he said, and more isn’t needed.
He expected to tell principals at the 46 schools and centers across five counties that if families refuse to sign, “it’s not worth fighting over a piece of paper.”
Conversation and understanding will have to be the key to getting through these times, he added.
“My feeling is, as a community, we have to get back to loving and caring about one another,” Pastura said. “We have to talk things through. That’s how we’re community.”
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