desk stock file photo school

During a tour of the West Jefferson High School with coronavirus precautions it can be seen that each desk in the classroom has a grey or red sticker on the top corner in Harvey, La. Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020. Each period, students will be asked to alternate their use of desks and to clean them off after each class. The school is scheduled to open on August 26. (Photo by Max Becherer, NOLA.com, The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

Even as public schools across Louisiana are jettisoning mask-wearing, the Diocese of Baton Rouge is sticking with its face-covering mandate for adults and children in Catholic schools, at least for those who’ve yet to get vaccinated against the deadly coronavirus.

The preservation of mask-wearing, at least for now, is part of new rules for reopening schools next month, rules that were released Wednesday by the diocese. Like last year, mask-wearing is optional for children in second grade and below. 

“Realizing that the pandemic is not over, the vaccination rate in our state is not substantial and some students and staff are unable to receive the vaccine, schools have an obligation to provide a safe environment for all members of the school community,” the new policy states.

In allowing vaccinated individuals to go unmasked, the new rules are similar to those announced last week by New Orleans public schools, though they go a step further by lifting some social distancing restrictions on the inoculated. Baton Rouge public schools are making masks optional.

To prove vaccination status, individuals will need to submit “a copy of the CDC vaccination card or verification from a similar state or medical authority.”

The newly announced rules preserve many of the safety practices that local parochial schools employed this past year.

In an accompanying letter, Melanie Palmisano, superintendent of Catholic schools, said “while it may seem that schools are beginning as they ended the last school year,” some of the new rules relax prior restrictions. These include a resumption in field trips, sports at elementary schools, along with eliminating daily temperature checks, shorter quarantines and 3-foot rather than 6-foot social distancing in the classroom for unvaccinated children.

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The Diocese of Baton Rouge oversees 31 Catholic schools across eight parishes. Diocesan schools were among the first to reopen for in-person instruction during the 2020-21 school year.

The new policy was developed by a team of diocesan officials with help from medical professionals with Our Lady of the Lake hospital. They draw on recent safety guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and the Louisiana Department of Education.

Below are other highlights of new diocesan school rules:

  • Unvaccinated children must still stay 6 feet apart in common areas and during activities with “increased exhalation” such as singing, shouting, band practice, sports, or exercise and that those activities should continue to be “held outdoors or in large, well-ventilated spaces whenever possible.”
  • School buses will run at full capacity, but masks are still required, the windows will be open and students will have assigned seating that will be enforced.
  • Quarantines for asymptomatic students and staff will be shortened to 10 days, but will still last 14 days for extracurricular activities. Quarantines for all students and staff in early grades, pre-K to two, will last 14 days.
  • Vaccinated students may share rooms on overnight trips, but unvaccinated students will need solo accommodations.
  • “Non-essential visitors” will continue to be barred from visiting diocesan schools "unless required by law or by contract for services."

As far as visitors considered non-essential, the policy gives volunteers and members of non-school organization as examples. But the designation doesn't stop there. For instance, even vaccinated visitors must stay away, said diocesan spokesman Dan Borné, "because it is very difficult for a school to check vaccination credentials/records for individuals to visit campus."

When asked whether parents could visit school to eat lunch with their children, Borné said they cannot.

"At this time," he said, "that would not be allowed under the current guidelines from the state."


Email Charles Lussier at clussier@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.