Washington D.C., Feb 11, 2022 / 17:00 pm (CNA).
Parents of children enrolled in Archdiocese of Washington schools have begun a campaign to urge the archdiocese to align mask regulations in schools with local policies.
“Compassion, science, and respect for parental authority all point towards ending the mask mandates within our Catholic Schools. The Church has a duty to protect the children in its schools, and the Archdiocese has the power to set its own masking rules,” says a letter from “concerned parents of the archdiocese” addressed to Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington.
The letter will be delivered to Gregory on Feb. 18.
“Accordingly, we respectfully request that the ADW implement a mask-optional policy for all students by no later than February 28th, 2022, which it clearly has the authority to do for our Catholic Schools in Maryland,” says the letter.
The territory of the Archdiocese of Washington includes five counties in Maryland plus the entirety of the District of Columbia. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) announced earlier this week that he would look to make masks optional in schools.
“As parents and the primary educators of our children, we know first-hand that our children have suffered immensely over the past two years,” says the letter. Masks, they said, have been “one of the most damaging aspects,” as they impact a child’s vision, hearing, breathing, and ability to learn and develop properly.
“Perhaps most troubling is that masking affects our children’s emotional well-being and mental health,” says the letter. “The effects of masking and the social, emotional, developmental scars of the pandemic will impact our children for the rest of their lives. They are desperate for a return to normalcy.”
The letter noted that scientists, and politicians from both major political parties, have recently come out in favor of eliminating mask mandates in schools, and that mandates have been dropped without major outbreaks.
Parents of children enrolled in schools in the Archdiocese of Washington told CNA they were frustrated with the archdiocese’s unwillingness to budge on masks in school.
“The kids are not okay. They’re stressed, having developmental and behavioral issues, and they’re yearning for normalcy,” Nadia Simon, parent of a child at Little Flower School in Bethesda, Md., said. Simon’s kindergartener “has never known a normal school year,” something she says “breaks my heart.”
“People keep saying that kids are resilient, but in saying that, you’re acknowledging that you’re doing something to them that they’re having to struggle to overcome,” she said. Simon pointed to other area schools who have given parents the choice about whether their children should wear masks.
In neighboring Virginia, newly-inaugurated Gov. Glenn Youngkin issued an order removing the commonwealth’s mask mandate in schools, and the Diocese of Arlington’s schools went mask-optional as a result.
“And their numbers look about the same as ours,” she said. “There’s no reason to delay any longer.”
Maryland’s schools were among the last in the country to return to in-person instruction, and public school enrollment in Maryland’s largest county dropped in the wake of the pandemic, with many parents opting to homeschool or to enroll their children in private schools.
Dawn Iannaco-Hahn, MS, LCPC, whose older son attends a Catholic school in Gaithersburg, was one of those parents. While she is happy her child is in school, she told CNA that she believes the archdiocese is engaging in “virtue signaling” with its dedication to masks.
Iannaco-Hahn, who described herself as a “huge proponent of public schools,” moved her son to a private school in December 2020 after it became clear that his public school would not set a date to re-open.
“He was in public school and he has an IEP, and they were not meeting his needs. Like not even a tiny bit,” she said. “They weren’t doing any of his accommodations, because you can’t (do them) on a screen.”
While she said she has been happy that her child is in a physical school building, her son continues to be unhappy with the requirement to wear a mask.
“I’m like ‘just put your mask on and suck it up for now because I need you to be in a building learning,’” she said.
Long-term masking, she said, is detrimental to children.
“As a mental health therapist, I see how this is affecting my own children. I know how it’s affecting, you know, children that I see in my job. And it’s time to make it a choice at this point,” she said. The number of children she sees at her job who have been referred to speech therapy has increased dramatically.
What’s more, “these kids don’t know how to read faces,” she told CNA. “These kids are lacking the ability to read nonverbal communication based on facial expressions because you know, the whole bottom half of everybody’s face is cut off.”
In recent weeks, Iannaco-Hahn has testified against mandatory masking at the board of education. She told CNA that she wants it known that she is fully in support of her sons’ teachers – both at the Catholic and public schools – but that changes need to be made for the well-being of children.
“People are always trying to twist my words and, you know, call me this, that and the other,” she said. “But for me, you can call me whatever you want and I’m gonna wear it as a badge of honor, because I will do anything and everything to advocate for my kids. And if that makes me a bad person, then so be it.”
“I just think it makes me a parent,” she said.
Others cited the practical issues with forcing a young child to mask all day, as well as the disparity between mandates for children and adults.
“My youngest child has a rash all the time from his mask and cries about wearing it,” Holly Morrison and Jesse Sherrett wrote to CNA. “His ability to learn language and social skills is being undermined by this illogical measure.”
Morrison and Sherrett are the parents of three children aged 5 to 10-years old who attend Blessed Sacrament School.
They pointed out the hypocrisy of their children being forced to wear masks at school – even outdoors at recess – while “adults are free to drink at bars with strangers for hours mask free.”
“This asymmetry is illogical particularly when we know that Covid does not pose any greater risk for our children than the seasonal flu,” they told CNA.
According to Maryland’s coronavirus data, there have been 212,644 cases diagnosed in children between the ages of 0 to 19 since the start of the pandemic. There have been 20 deaths.
Lauren DeSarno, whose children attend Holy Redeemer School, told CNA that her kids “miss seeing their friends’ smiling faces” and that being unable to see their teachers’ mouth “makes it hard to hear and understand what is being taught.”
“It also makes them less eager to speak up and participate in class,” she said. “I would love to see us get to a point where every parent should be able to choose whether or not their children are masked.”
Most parents CNA heard from focused their anger on the Archdiocese of Washington, not their childrens’ individual schools.
“I’m upset with the archdiocese for not speaking up and taking a stand against mask mandates,” Angela Ambruoso, whose child attends St. Jerome Academy in Hyattsville. “I expect ADW leadership to set politics aside and work to provide excellent education for our children.”
St. Jerome’s, she said, “has been bending over backward” to keep its students in-person.
“If ADW does not eventually allow its schools to police masking as each sees fit, I’ll pray and trust SJA to make the right decision and remove the masks anyhow – come what may,” she said.
The Archdiocese of Washington did not respond to CNA’s request for comment on Feb. 10. That evening, however, Superintendent Kelly Branaman released a statement declining to say when the mandatory mask policy would be suspended.
“The ADW Catholic Schools Office has been closely monitoring local data and conditions throughout the school year with an eye toward removing the masking requirement in our schools when warranted by local conditions,” said the statement.
“With declining case rates, increased vaccination rates, and indoor mask mandates set to expire in local jurisdictions, we are working with archdiocesan leadership to finalize our plan and timeline to remove the masking requirement so that families may decide for their children whether to wear a mask in our schools. We will keep school leaders and parents informed of our next steps in the near future,” she said.
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