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Mask Mandate Discussion Dominates Morton School Board Meeting

The Morton School District adopted a multi-tier back-to-school plan just before the governor issued his statewide indoor masking mandate for schools amid a rise in childhood COVID-19 cases as the Delta variant proliferates.

That plan likely would have started Morton's school year off in the lowest level tier, with a mask-optional policy in place.

More than a dozen people — mostly parents — spoke for over an hour on their opinions on mandatory masking during Tuesday night's school board meeting. The meeting's location was moved from the usual boardroom to the high school auditorium due to expected high attendance.

Chad Bell is a Morton daycare owner, parent, and an Army sergeant. Bell said he feels masking up is essentially a political statement.

"I feel like whichever side of the aisle you're on, that's what you do. As far as masks go, if you're on the left, you wear a mask. On the right, you don't. So being political is a choice. So masking should be a choice of the parents, for children who are not old enough to make that choice," Bell said.

Eric Osterman said he wanted the board to consider a punishment for students who don't mask — and he had a suggestion on what that discipline should be.

"I think the best thing we can continue to do is to teach our kids and for every child, every week you choose not to wear a mask, do a one-page paper on a figure from history who had success in nonviolent civil disobedience," Osterman said. "Because that is what I would like to propose — nonviolent civil disobedience. That is what we should be teaching our children. And I believe that is the most effective way forward."

More people spoke out against mandatory masking than for it. Some cited disinformation on the ineffectiveness of masking in preventing respiratory illnesses or cited debunked studies about carbon dioxide buildup in masks posing a threat.

Josie Kneller is a junior at Morton High School. She spoke in support of masking up.

"These new 'tyrannical' rules are only being implemented to protect us. I think everyone can agree that wearing a mask is very uncomfortable. However, the fact of the matter is that wearing masks have been proven to protect us from unwanted viruses," Kneller said. "I am all for the ideals of individual choice and freedom. But some individuals may not be able to have freedom in the future if we do not stick to wearing masks."

Kneller also noted that Tazewell County currently has a higher COVID-19 positivity rate per capita than New York City, the nation's largest urban center.

Those amenable to making masking optional generally received wider applause from the audience than the pro-mandatory masking advocates.

For his part, Morton superintendent Dr. Jeff Hill said the district's legal counsel advised the board the governor's new executive order on school masking has the force of law.

"Violating the mandate is going to put the district at risk. What kind of risk? The risk of not being recognized, having your status as a school system not recognized, which means having your diploma not worth what it would be," Hill said.

Non-recognized schools also are barred from participating in IHSA and IESA-organized sports.

The Illinois State Board of Education has moved swiftly to penalize districts that are non-compliant with the masking executive order. Brimfield District 309 in Peoria County was placed on "probationary" status for veering away from the mandate.

Hill was among a group of superintendents who headed to ISBE's board meeting in Springfield on Wednesday to advocate for allowing local school boards more flexibility to ease the universal masking mandate.

"We're talking about our case for local control here in Morton, but also within central Illinois," Hill said. "There's a number of districts that feel like we do, in terms of local control."

Hill said the Morton school board has long advocated for local control in its policy preferences when it comes to school curriculum and other state mandates.

But during public comment, UnityPoint Health family medicine physician Dr. Kelsey Murray said that argument doesn't hold water in this case.

"There is no such thing as local control anymore, because it is a global pandemic. The universe is global, as we are traveling and doing everything like it has gone away, but it hasn't," Murray said. "It's here, it's worse than it was before, and we're not doing the same mitigation measures."

Murray said just 48% of Tazewell County is considered fully vaccinated at a time when the community is considered by CDC metrics to be at a "high" level of COVID-19 transmission.

She said they've seen many of her patients die in the ICU from COVID-19 over the past year and a half, and she told the audience the virus isn't going away anytime soon.

"I just ask that you do everything you can, which would include having kids wear masks. It's uncomfortable, it stinks, (but) it's a lot easier than being in the ICU, being on a ventilator, than having your loved one die. I ask that you think of the children, the most vulnerable, those who don't have a say for themselves, and continue to comply with that," Murray said.

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.