Mask mandate shifts school plans

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Gov. JB Pritzker’s mask mandate last week forced many school officials across the state to revise back-to-school plans, including those in Monroe County. 

In a press conference on Aug. 4, Pritzker announced that everyone will be required to wear masks while inside Illinois public and private schools, regardless of vaccination status. 

This includes during all indoor recreational activities. However, masks will not be required when outdoors. 

When asked about students with medical conditions unrelated to COVID that prevent them from safely being able to adhere to the mandate, Pritzker said a doctor’s note should be sufficient to excuse them from the requirement. 

Prior to the mask mandate, Waterloo and Columbia informed community members their schools would not be instituting a strict mandate, although they would recommend masks. 

Both Waterloo School Superintendent Brian Charron and Columbia School Superintendent Chris Grode said Pritzker’s recent announcement means they must require everyone to mask up when inside school buildings, except when eating or drinking or if one has a medical exemption. 

“I watch these numbers daily and I keep track of hospital bed availability, ICU bed availability, and those things just seem to be becoming more and more concerning, and I want to make sure that our school district and our community is also doing our part to keep everyone safe,” Charron said. “If that means everyone wears a mask and that can help keep our community safe, then it’s something that we would need to do. In this case the decision is no longer in our hands. The decision has been made at the state level that everyone will be wearing a mask.” 

In a letter to Diocesan school families, Superintendent of Schools for the Belleville Diocese Jonathan Birdsong said while private religious schools “have been exempt from some state and federal regulations, this mandate does not fall into that category.” 

As a result, all schools in the Belleville Diocese are to require everyone to wear masks while inside their schools.

Immaculate Conception School Principal David Gregson attached this letter to an email sent to all ICS families along with a detailed Back to School Plan that describes day-to-day operations under the mandate. 

“The ultimate goal is to educate your child/children in the building while keeping everyone safe,” Gregson wrote in bold typeface. 

As far as enforcing the mandate, Monroe County Health Department Administrator John Wagner said he has heard schools are encouraged to treat violations of the mask mandates like violations of a dress code, meaning the discipline is to increase in severity with each offense. 

“The seriousness (of punishment) continues to move up as a student continues to not follow a directive. It’s no different than a dress code or somebody cussing in school … if this person continues to do this type of behavior, that punishment gets more and more severe until they face expulsion,” Wagner said. 

As of press time, schools have not released detailed disciplinary plans, but in Columbia’s Return to School Plan, administration wrote that “students failing to adhere to (the mask) requirement will be addressed by their teacher and/or administration.” 

Both Columbia and Waterloo school districts have heard from groups of parents voicing discontent with the mask mandate – some even urging the districts to not abide by the mandate. 

Grode expressed it is for the overall benefit of the students and for the districts at large to comply with the mandate – no matter how strong parents’ personal opinions may be – as those who do not comply will face detrimental sanctions. 

At last week’s press conference, Pritzker said there are two large-scale consequences schools can face should they disobey the mandate. 

“There are two main ways in which the mandate might be enforced,” Pritzker said. “One is the liability that they will suffer. They all have liability insurance. If you’re not following the state mandate, it is reasonable that someone might file a lawsuit against the school if someone gets sick in that school as a result of the school simply not following these mitigations. That’s one, and two is the Illinois State Board of Education has the ability to remove recognition status for a school if it isn’t following the mandates.” 

If a school loses recognition under ISBE, it could lose necessary funding that keeps it in operation, among other resources that keep schools functioning.

Grode said parents who wish to change the mandate should voice their concerns to Illinois legislators.

“I have encouraged both sides of parents that have expressed displeasure with me (to) reach out to the legislature,” Grode said. “At this point in time, we are going to follow the rules and do what we need to do. If it’s a recommendation, we are going to treat it as a recommendation. If it is a requirement, it will be treated as a requirement. If you do not like the recommendation or the requirement, you can work to try to get those things changed.” 

According to Wagner, IDPH and ISBE released new quarantine guidance Monday, providing school administrators with some clarification.

Wagner said the new guidance states unvaccinated individuals, provided they are masked, need to quarantine if they have been within three feet or less of somebody who tested positive, provided the positive contact was consistently masked as well. 

This is for contact that has spanned for 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period. This is for indoor instances in school settings only, as IDPH does not require a quarantine for outdoor school exposure. 

Because of the CDC’s Test to Stay protocol, an exposed unvaccinated student who is asymptomatic can return to school provided they test negative for COVID-19 on days 1, 3, 5 and 7 after initial exposure. 

Vaccinated individuals exposed to an individual indoors who tested positive do not need to quarantine unless they themselves test positive or develop symptoms, Wagner said. 

However, Wagner specified the local health department can require individuals to quarantine at their discretion in certain high-risk situations. For example, if a romantic couple were kissing outside at school and one partner tested positive, the Monroe County Health Department would most likely require the other partner to quarantine as well. 

Wagner was careful to note these guidelines may change. 

Pritzker said while schools cannot do any less than the mandate requires, they may implement additional precautionary measures as they see fit. 

“Each individual school district and school can, in addition to that, place their own mitigations in their schools. Examples being you’ve seen plexiglass in certain circumstances or distancing within the classrooms,” Pritzker said. “Although we are not requiring that, they are making those decisions within each school and each district.” 

Within the Waterloo School District, Charron said they will be increasing the cleaning regimen as well as ventilation, weather permitting. They will also be social distancing students as much as possible. 

Last year, Waterloo dismissed students before lunch as students must unmask to eat, therefore increasing the chance of potential transmission. With students dining at schools again this year, Charron said principals are developing alternative lunch period schedules to minimize the amount of students in the lunchroom at one time, as well as to limit the amount of time students spend in the lunchrooms. 

Grode said much of Columbia’s additional precautions will be specific to each circumstance. 

“That’s going to be on a case-by-case basis,” Grode said when asked about additional precautions. “I know some of my administrators have talked about if it’s (a) tighter (space), leaving the plexiglass up. We added a lot of that stuff last year and if it’s not in the way (we will keep it). We’re still providing every classroom with chemical wipes, so when classes change, teachers can wipe down tables. So a lot of the things we included last year, we’re including this year.”

In its Back to School Plan, ICS detailed more precautionary measures it will take. These include students must sanitize their hands before entering each classroom, playground time will be restricted to one grade level at a time and parents are required to make an appointment before entering the building. 

While requiring masks inside schools is no longer a local decision because of Pritzker’s mandate, Waterloo and Columbia are still ready to enact different restrictions if they, with Monroe County Health Department guidance, deem necessary. 

“We will respond to outbreaks that occur in our schools, and that’s what we will be working with the (Monroe County) Health Department on that could result in entire classrooms being quarantined or a school building being closed for a week or two,” Charron said. “We’re hoping it doesn’t come to that, but those are other precautions that we might take based on local consultation with our health department.”

To view Columbia’s current back-to-school plan, which is subject to change provided IDPH and ISBE release more guidance, visit their Facebook page. Follow Waterloo’s social media for the most up-to-date information. Visit republictimes.net for Waterloo’s and ICS’s back to school plan.

Valmeyer has not yet responded to requests on its handling of the mask mandate and COVID protocols ahead of the coming school year.

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