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To Mask, Or Not To Mask? That Is The Question For Peoria-Area School Districts

Tim Shelley

Things are getting heated for local schools as they prepare their plans for the upcoming 2021-22 school year ... but the steamy summer weather has little to do with it.

Masking is becoming an increasingly contentious issue after the state left it up to local districts to determine many of their own rules for COVID-19 mitigation. Mirroring the Centers for Disease Control’s guidance, the Illinois Department of Public Health recommends masks be worn by all unvaccinated people ages two and up – but stops short of mandating it.

Bussing remains the sole exception to mandated masking, as a form of public mass transit.

Dr. Jeff Hill, superintendent of Morton District 709, said they’ll largely defer to parents on questions of masking and vaccinations.

“We do realize that the CDC recommends masks for unvaccinated students. In Morton District 709, we’re leaving that decision to parents, as to whether or not students should wear a mask while inside the school buildings,” Hill said at a Tuesday school board meeting introducing the first draft of the district’s back-to-school plan.

Mailee Smith, a Morton resident and staff attorney for the libertarian-leaning Illinois Policy Institute, supported that approach. She framed the masking issue as one primarily of family choice.

“If families want to continue masking, they will be free to do so. If families don’t want to mask, then they won’t have to do so. So by making masks optional, you will best balance the health concerns with the academic, social-emotional well-being of our students, while also making sure to prioritize the family’s individual preferences,” Smith said.

Smith also said requiring masks for the unvaccinated would create a “logistical nightmare” for teachers trying to enforce it, and would pose a risk of stigmatizing unvaccinated students with their vaccinated peers.

Similar sentiments cropped up across the river in Dunlap District 323, which is also adopting a mask optional policy for the upcoming school year.

At a Wednesday school board meeting, Dunlap parent Josh Hoerr claimed masks would create breathing problems for his child due to a buildup of moisture inside the mask.

“At the end of the day, it’s got to be what’s best for the health of your child,” he said. “What’s best for my child is to not wear masks.”

Peoria City/County Health Department Administrator Monica Hendrickson was skeptical when presented with these arguments.

“So, you know, I would be really interested in to know those data sources, other than just a kind of an opinionated approach to this,” she said.

Hendrickson endorsed the multi-tiered approach presented in a joint statement by the Tri-County health departments and hospital systems on Thursday, which includes physical distancing, frequent screening and testing, promoting vaccinations, and “consistent and correct” mask usage.

“The approach you use for a 35-year-old, the approach you use for an 18-year-old, even a 12-year-old, is going to be different than a 2-year-old, a 3-year-old, where they are eligible to be vaccinated – because it does not exist yet for them,” Hendrickson said. “For them to maintain social distancing is again difficult just because of their maturity level. And, again, you’re looking at screening of them or testing them routinely, which can also be difficult. So masking becomes imperative for them.”

The Pfizer vaccine is available for kids ages 12 and up. Statewide, 56% of people ages 12 and up are considered fully vaccinated, with more than 71% reported to have received at least one dose. In Peoria, Tazewell, and Woodford Counties, the rates of fully vaccinated people hover in the mid-40 percentiles.

“In all of our conversations, we discussed the need for a layered approach to mitigation strategies. No strategy is 100% effective. But the combination of strategies proves protective means for preventing infection and the possibility of serious health issues resulting from COVID-19,” said George McKenna, the Peoria County Regional Office of Education’s assistant superintendent. “Every school district is dedicated to monitoring their local conditions and making adjustments to their plans based on changing information through community data or discussions with local or statewide agencies.”

McKenna told WCBU that while some districts are still choosing to keep face coverings optional, others are considering more stringent policies.

“It’s a tall task for our school districts to be able to monitor and police who’s vaccinated who’s not in order to try and figure out who should mask and who shouldn’t be masking,” he said in a telephone interview, noting that evolving circumstances present administrators with an array of questions and concerns.

“How do they know who is vaccinated and who isn’t vaccinated? If you require masks of people who are unvaccinated, does that create an issue in the climate and culture of their building, where kids might feel isolated? I think there's a lot of real care there not only from a possible infection standpoint, but also from a social emotional learning standpoint about kids feeling singled out.

“And what do you do with students’ health information? Is this requiring masks is somehow denoted on an ID with a colored sticker? Does that somehow create another issue in their schools? They really do have a vast number of considerations with what is a really complex issue, not only with students’ physical health but also their mental health.”

Morton’s draft plan contains two levels of mitigations depending on the rates of transmission, subject to change. Hill said the plan as of now was to have students quarantine only when they were in close contact with a confirmed positive and are exhibiting symptoms of the virus. Parents of asymptomatic students in close contact would be notified but not required to quarantine.

Morton school board member Bart Rinkenberger suggested to parents that testing an asymptomatic student may do more harm than good.

“I would beg you to consider when you test because I think one of the things as I’ve listened to administration over the last year was parents who are just curious, or they think they’re doing a service to the district, and they get some kind of a positive with almost no symptoms. And it just throws a huge monkey wrench in the whole system,” he said. “And I know that’s an individual choice, but I would encourage parents to ask themselves, are you helping or hurting the situation? Because let’s remember 99.997% survival rate of under 20-year-olds. I’ll rant on this, then I’ll be done. If we follow this logic with driving cars, there isn’t a child in the world that should be driving a car.”

Hendrickson pushed back on that narrative of COVID-19’s perceived lesser impact on the young.

“Oftentimes we’ve talked about COVID in the realm of adults. And we ignore the fact that just because children are not dying from it doesn’t mean they’re not impacted from it,” she said.

Dunlap parent Chrissy Malson said the district was doing the “bare minimum” to protect her child’s health.

“From my family’s point of view, this administration and school doesn’t care about the pandemic and has never taken it seriously,” she said.

Dunlap superintendent Scott Dearman pushed back later in the meeting against a suggestion the district was “passing” on the IDPH masking recommendation.

“It is recommended that students wear masks, and I believe that you should wear a mask, especially if you’re not vaccinated. I do believe that,” Dearman said. “However, I also believe in the authority of our parents to make that decision for me not to be the one to tell them that. So we are following the IDPH recommendation that masks are encouraged, but we’re just not going to require them.”

Hendrickson said that as of Thursday, she had only reviewed the back-to-school plans for Peoria Public School and Limestone. Both of those plans involved masking in some form, she said.

Limestone superintendent Allan Gresham said any decision on requiring masks would likely upset some parents either way.

“No matter the policy that’s set moving forward by any of our local boards of education as it relates to masking, there's going to be some folks that don't agree with that decision because there are strong feelings want on both sides,” said Gresham.

“We all want the safest learning environment and most comfortable learning environment for our students that that we can have. Whether we whether we have a mask on or not, let’s not lose track of the fact that ‘hey, we’re all going back to school full-time.’ Every student gets to see all of their teachers on a daily basis and have that face-to-face interaction and learning opportunity.”

In Dunlap, Malson charged board members were following their personal political agendas. That raised the ire of board member Mike Wisdom.

“We don’t do this for political or personal uses. We’re doing what we think is best for the kids to navigate this time. But we are getting a lot of information on both sides of the issue. And the best we can do is try to make the best decision we can. “We were right the last time,” said board member Mike Wisdom, referring to the decision to bring kids back to school full-time at the beginning of the fall 2020 semester. “And there was a lot of opposition to whether we should go back full-time, part time. We took the hits. We took the heat, but I don’t think there are any are very many people that say we were wrong.”

Malson said she felt like the board has operated in secrecy in its pandemic planning, and found the fall 2021 return-to-school plan equally lacking.

“I personally feel like the entire time, even last year, that at the very last minute, this board made a decision clearly behind closed doors, to not even follow what the school staff and the committee worked on for education [unintelligible],” she said.

“And thank God we did,” replied Wisdom.

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.
Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.