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Sacramento-area Catholic schools are lifting mask mandates ahead of the state

Catholic students in two Northern California dioceses removed their masks this week after leaders said they wouldn't wait for state approval to lift the mandate in their classrooms.

On Monday, California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly announced that the state would move to strongly recommending masking in schools after 11:59 p.m. on March 11. In the meantime, students and staff are still required under state law to wear masks at school. Masking rules apply to both public and private K-12 schools, according to the California Department of Public Health.

Shortly following the announcement, Katie Perata, executive director of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Sacramento, and Stockton Bishop Myron J. Cotta, sent letters to their respective communities announcing they would allow students to remove masks before the state lifts its mandate.

Perata said the Diocese of Sacramento will follow the most recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, which allows schools to be mask-optional based on the levels of hospitalizations and new COVID-19 cases in the area. Diocese schools that are located in a county categorized as low to medium spread, including Colusa, El Dorado, Placer, Sacramento, Yolo, can lift masks immediately, Perata said Monday.

The Diocese of Sacramento operates 36 elementary schools and six high schools, serving more than 13,000 students, according to its website.

"I encourage our families to begin conversations at home concerning mask wearing," Perata wrote to families. "Whether or not a student wears a mask is a family decision and in the classroom, we want to ensure no child is made to feel uncomfortable due to that choice. This preparation is essential for inclusive and respectful environments as we move forward."

In his letter, Cotta, in Stockton, lamented that the pandemic and debate around masking in schools has increased division in the community, and that he finds he is caught in a "lose-lose situation."

After some reflection, Cotta said the diocese will strongly recommend masks starting March 1. The diocese operates two high schools, 11 elementary schools and eight preschools near Stockton and Modesto.

"The use of other mitigation strategies will continue to be used to support a healthy working and learning environment," he wrote. "For those who wish for their child to continue to wear a mask, we will fully support this choice."

The dioceses are not the first to defy the state's school mask mandate. In February, several districts voted to make masks optional for their students. As a result, some of them could lose insurance coverage.

Even though state officials say all schools must follow the law, California has done little to enforce it.

When asked on Monday, Ghaly acknowledged that some may defy the school rules.

"I think that the issues around enforcement, whether it's at the state or local level, have been tricky throughout the pandemic," he said. "I'm confident that we will continue to see the schools keep keep masks on, though it won't happen everywhere."

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