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Diocese of Baton Rouge Bishop Michael Duca speaks during Palm Sunday Mass at the cathedral, March 28, 2021. Palm Sunday marks the first day of Holy Week, the last week of the Christian solemn season of Lent that precedes Eastertide. In most liturgical churches, Palm Sunday is celebrated by the blessing and distribution of palm branches representing the palm branches which the crowd scattered in front of Christ, as he rode into Jerusalem.

The Diocese of Baton Rouge, for now, is sticking with making masks optional for students and staff in the 2021-22 school year, but will announce final rules Monday.

And Bishop Michael Duca says the mask policy and other safety measures could change depending on how bad the latest surge of the deadly coronavirus is by then.

“As I write this, reported COVID numbers, particularly the Delta variant cases, are rising,” Duca said in a letter sent out on Wednesday to Catholic school parents and on Thursday to local media. “The CDC has expanded substantially its guidance with respect to the wearing of masks.”

On July 15, Duca reversed a policy announced by diocesan leaders the day before that would have required masks, though those who were vaccinated and could prove it would have been exempt. Such disparate treatment of the vaccinated versus the unvaccinated was in line with CDC guidance issued July 9, but it prompted an immediate backlash, which led to Duca’s swift reversal.

The CDC changed its guidance earlier this week and is now calling for universal mask-wearing in school.

In his letter Thursday, Duca talks more about what happened two weeks ago.

“The ensuing reaction surprised me in intensity, conviction and breadth of reasons which were based on both medical and political opinions, and in some few cases, in the rage and disrespect (though possibly not intended) shown to the parish secretaries, pastors, and the staff at the Catholic Life Center,” Duca wrote.

“I felt this personally, not because of the disagreement about guidelines or proposed protocols, but because of the explicit assumption that the diocese was not acting in the best interest of our children or that I was being influenced by a political narrative that was obstructing personal or religious freedom. I want to be clear and assure you that such thoughts are not true.”

Last year, diocesan schools were among the first to reopen in person in the Baton Rouge area. Like the public schools, Catholic schools required masks for all adults and for children in grades three and up, as well as mandatory social distancing as well as capacity limits on school gatherings.

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In his letter, Duca said it was a successful school year with low infection rates — less than 10% of students in all diocesan schools as a whole tested positive for COVID during the 2020-21 school year, and few of those infections occurring inside school buildings.

Almost all mandatory restrictions on schools were lifted by Gov. John Bel Edwards on May 26. The Louisiana Department of Education let its own rules expire with the just ended 2020-21 school year and announced from then on schools and school districts would make those safety calls.

To help them, the state agency prepared COVID safety guidelines for schools to follow in 2021-22, but the agency made clear in late May they would be voluntary, not mandatory. Those guidelines were released June 23 and have been updated three times since.

Each version has recommended, but not required, mandatory mask-wearing. The latest version calls for mask-wearing for children ages 5 and up, broader than what was in place last year.

Bishop Duca has said, and he reiterated Thursday, that Catholic schools leaders assumed that the new state guidelines were mandatory and changed his stance after state Superintendent Cade Brumley clarified that the guidelines were in fact only recommendations.

In his latest letter, Duca said the concerns he has received are not only from parents who don’t like mask-wearing.

“When our plan for reopening schools changed, some sent me thank-you notes for listening to parents. While I appreciate this acknowledgment, please know that for every parent who does not want his or her child to wear a mask, there is a parent who believes that masks are still important to ensure safety,” Duca wrote.

“I believe that both views come from concern for our children. These disagreements in viewpoint will not be settled by any decision we make. I accept this fact, and so I will move forward with a focus only on keeping our schools open and everyone safe. These two goals remain at the core of my motivation.”


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