The Diocese of St. Petersburg announced Friday that its schools will temporarily require students, staff and campus visitors to wear masks while indoors, regardless of whether they are vaccinated or have previously opted out of a mask requirement.
The change applies to students from age 4 through high school and will take effect Monday.
Students will be able to opt out only for medical reasons, using a form that must be signed by a licensed health care provider and must include a description of the medical reason for the exemption. The rule is a change from earlier this month, when the diocese started the school year by making masks optional.
It will be in effect until the weekly new case rate is below 100 per 100,000 population and the positivity rate is below 10 percent in the county.
Positivity rates remained high in the Tampa Bay area, according state numbers released Friday. The rate was 21.5 percent in Hillsborough County, 19.2 percent in Pinellas, 21.9 percent in Pasco, 19.2 percent in Manatee, 24.6 percent in Polk, 23.1 percent in Hernando, and 22.4 percent in Citrus.
In a letter to parents, Christopher Pastura, school superintendent for diocese, pointed out that school-age children made up about one-fourth of new cases.
Pastura said schools in the Catholic system locally had more cases in the first two weeks of classes than they did in the first six months of last year. Several schools have had to impose multiple quarantines, causing “significant disruptions,” he said.
The diocese’ system enrolls about 13,000 students across 46 schools and early childhood centers in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties.
Quarantines are not optional, Pastura said. However, under guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only sick individuals would have to quarantine if people are masked.
“Our goal is to make sure that school continues, that we stay open and that all the kids are safe and our teachers are safe,” he said.
Pastura said a number of physicians also contacted the diocese telling them they needed to “elevate their precautions.”
Pastura appealed for understanding from the community even if they disagree with the measure and to treat teachers with “kindness and respect.”
“Teaching is a very difficult profession in ideal circumstances,” he said. “We ask parents and community members — whether they’re in our schools, the public schools, everywhere — to realize that your teachers and administrators are doing everything they can. They love your children. Whether you agree with this or not, please be respectful of the people who serve your children and realize that people are trying to make the best decisions they can to keep all the kids safe.”
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