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Peoria Area Schools Mull COVID-19 Plans Amid New CDC, IDPH Mask Recommendations

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Mike Rundle
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Some area school districts may rethink their COVID-19 policies under the latest masking recommendations from public health officials.

The Illinois Department of Public Health said Tuesday it is fully adopting new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that strongly recommends universal indoor masking for all school students and teachers.

With classes set to start in just a few weeks, Peoria County regional superintendent Beth Crider noted many school districts already have put together their back-to-school plans and may have to make adjustments.

“It’s very hard to wait until the month of August before you start that planning, but we’ve always known along the way the recommendations could change,” said Crider, adding she is in regular contact with Peoria City/County Health Department Administrator Monica Hendrickson as they anticipate further direction from the state agencies.

“Once we have that information from the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) and from the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), we will make our next set of recommendations to our local school districts. We have a superintendent call scheduled for next week to talk through what it’s going to look like in our local school districts,” said Crider.

She said the mask issue remains a touchy subject for school boards and administrators because some parents feel face coverings are necessary while others remain adamantly opposed to a requirement.

“Do I think that that’s part of it? Yes. Do some people not agree with the research and the science and the things that are coming out of some of these organizations? Yes. Is it political? Yes,” said Crider. “Every community has all of these factions in their area, and if you’re a school administrator trying to weigh all of those different pieces, it is very hard to make everyone happy.”

Last week, Peoria Public Schools announced it would require universal masking. However, other Tri-County districts like Dunlap and Morton have steadfastly adopted optional mask policies. Limestone Community High School Superintendent Allan Gresham said Wednesday the plan he will present to his board of education matches the wording from the IDPH and IBSE.

“We will closely monitor how we’re doing in our building in terms of the positivity rate and the number of positives that we have in the building, and if we see that get into and become an issue, then we’ll move to require masks of all the students and staff,” said Gresham. “We don’t know what’s going to happen with COVID, and so if we get into issues beyond that, our plan will call for universal masking for everyone.”

Crider said the current wording of a strong recommendation still leaves local districts with control and discretion. But with the pandemic circumstances in constant flux, that is subject to change.

“If it stays a recommendation, then districts have a little bit more flexibility about how they implement masking,” she said. “But if it becomes a mandate from the Illinois Department of Public Health and from the local board of health, then that changes the conversation, and we have to be masking all of our students.”

Crider acknowledged districts that do not require masks could be opening themselves up to insurance issues and liability concerns.

“They’re going to have some very difficult decisions to make, because if it is a mandate, or if they’re not following the guidelines as recommended by the Illinois Department of Public Health and the CDC, then there are some difficult questions and issues potentially,” she said. “But that becomes then a decision of the local school board who was elected to represent those communities.”

Crider thinks the hesitancy of some boards and parents to accept a mask requirement stems from “COVID fatigue” and people getting re-accustomed to not regularly wearing face coverings.

“There’s just no masking now, and to go back to that is going to be a challenge," she said. "We’re all going to have to work together on good messaging because we need kids back in school, and we need to do it in the safest way possible.”

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