Our Lady of Mount Carmel School, Asbury Park, students properly follow the mandates about wearing facemasks to help lessen the chance of spreading or catching the virus. Mike Ehrmann photo
Our Lady of Mount Carmel School, Asbury Park, students properly follow the mandates about wearing facemasks to help lessen the chance of spreading or catching the virus. Mike Ehrmann photo
In response to public health directives regarding the pandemic and in an effort to keep students, teachers and staff healthy, Catholic schools in the Diocese of Trenton, like their public school counterparts, began the new school year with mask mandates for all school occupants and vaccination or testing mandates for teachers and staff.

The surge of the Delta variant of the Sars CoV-2 virus in the state prompted Governor Phil Murphy to require that all students, educators, staff and visitors in New Jersey schools – both public and private institutions – will be required to wear face masks indoors for the start of the 2021-2022 school year.

Additionally, on Aug. 23, the governor announced in Executive Order 253 that all school personnel throughout the state must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 18 or be subjected to weekly testing.

Concerned over rising infection levels this summer, Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., addressed the topic of safety measures in an Aug. 16 message posted to diocesan media.  He stated, “We all have been hoping and praying that the effects of the pandemic would be well behind us by the time we opened our Catholic school doors for the 2021-22 academic year. Sad to say, that is not the case.”

The Bishop continued, “Although much progress has thankfully been made in so many areas of endeavor, the pandemic continues to make its presence felt through Delta and other emerging COVID variants, causing spikes in the virus in many parts of the country, including here in our own state of New Jersey.”

Gov. Murphy signed Executive Order 251 mandating masking indoors in all public, private and parochial preschool, elementary and secondary school buildings, with limited exceptions, effective Aug. 9. The order was made using recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics, both of which have called for students to wear masks in light of the increasing prevalence of Delta, the ineligibility of children under 12 to receive vaccines, and a rise in pediatric COVID-19 cases. Executive Order 253 requiring staff vaccination does not apply to students.

Dr. Vincent de Paul Schmidt, diocesan superintendent of Catholic schools, in memos to school principals Aug. 17 and Aug. 23 emphasized that the Catholic schools in the Diocese of Trenton have followed the mandates that were formally outlined in Executive Order 175 as well as the directives of the local health departments in which the Diocese’s schools are located.  He wrote, “The protocol of following State of New Jersey mandates and the recommendations of the local health departments will continue.

Dr. Schmidt pointed to documented effectiveness and success of mask-wearing and vaccines.

Masks, he reiterated, have been “an effective tool in combating the spread of the virus through airborne transmission,” and that the wearing of face coverings by all students, faculty, staff and administrators “will ensure safety as the highest of priorities.”

He continued, “This Executive Order 253 does provide a weekly testing option for those that do not want to receive the vaccine and opt out. There is funding for both the public and private schools to offset the cost of regular testing.”

The Bishop and Dr. Schmidt acknowledged that the announcements were met with opposition from some Catholic school parents, and support from others.  But, Bishop O’Connell stipulated, the schools of the Diocese “are obliged to observe that statewide public health mask mandate in school facilities, with the exception of times and activities noted in the Governor’s order. We have no choice since this is a statewide public health requirement for all New Jersey K-12 schools,” Bishop O’Connell said.

Gov. Murphy defended the mandate announcement, emphasizing the need for students to attend classes in person.

“We understand that students learn best in a classroom setting and remain committed to having our schools open for full-time, in person instruction this fall,” he said in an Aug. 6 press conference. “While this announcement gives us no pleasure, I know that by taking this precaution we can keep our schools open while also keeping our children safe.”

He promised that his office would continue to monitor new data and lift the mandate when it was determined safe to do so, while urging those eligible for vaccination to “act and help move our state in the right direction.”

“We are fortunate that our Catholic schools will be able to resume classes and other activities ‘in person’ rather than online,” Bishop O’Connell encouraged. “That fact, alone, will make a big difference in teaching and learning as well as in socialization so necessary and so missed last year among and within our Catholic school communities. … We move forward, now, grateful to be ‘back in school,’ hoping that the mask mandate will be short-lived.”

Committed to keep students learning in the best possible environment, Dr. Schmidt wrote, “If the COVID pandemic forces a different path forward, the Catholic schools will (as we have done since March 2020), adapt and do everything possible to keep our schools open with the safety and health of our students as the primary concern.”

To read Bishop O’Connell’s message, visit https://trentonmonitor.com/Content/Default/Bishop-s-Corner/Article/Back-to-school-on-the-journey-back-to-normal/-3/260/28045

To read Gov. Murphy’s full mandates, visit https://nj.gov/governor/