Mask concerns for Waterloo school district

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Monday night’s Waterloo School Board meeting saw more parents in attendance than normal, with each speaking before the board about mask policy concerns. 

A little over a week ago, Waterloo Superintendent of Schools Brian Charron sent an email to parents explaining the district’s masking policy for the beginning of the school year. 

As of now, Waterloo is not issuing a mask mandate but in accordance with CDC and Illinois Department of Public Health school guidelines, masks will be “strongly recommended” for unvaccinated students. If the virus begins to spread in its schools, district leadership, with consideration from Monroe County Health Department, may issue a mandate and/or other safety requirements. 

Nora and Wes Braswell, parents of children in the district, wish to see Waterloo implement a mask mandate for children who are not yet of age to be vaccinated. 

“Our primary concern is that you’re not going to require masks for children under 12,” Nora told the board. “To me, that is like lighting a match and putting it in a bag of gasoline … we’re not saying district-wide, I believe that high school children over 12 and teachers should be on the honors system just like everyone else.” 

The couple cited the Delta variant of COVID-19 as a main reason why they believe a mask mandate for students under 12 needs to be instituted. 

“What is concerning to me is the Delta variant is spreading this way,” Nora, who has worked at multiple St. Louis-area hospitals, said. “My primary job during this whole COVID thing is I’ve been working as a blood banker at Cardinal Glennon. I know people aren’t as concerned about children getting COVID, but children do die from COVID. It’s less likely, … but I’ve seen children die of mitotenitus. That should not happen.” 

Emily Whelan, another district mom, said she does not believe unvaccinated children should be required to wear a mask – especially considering the COVID-19 vaccines are so new and have not yet reached full FDA approval like many other common vaccines. 

She explained this may personally impact families like her own, who are not comfortable introducing their child to a COVID-19 vaccine for such reasons. 

“What I wish it would come down to is personal choice of the child and the parent,” Whelan said. “If you want to wear a mask to be safe, I encourage you to do so … but I also don’t want my son to be forced to wear a mask if we feel comfortable taking that risk and that’s the way we want to live our lives. I don’t want him to be singled out because he’s not going to get the vaccine and have to wear a mask when all other kids can just be normal.” 

Amanda Chase, a mom of two students within the district, requested clarification on the district’s policy and how it will be enforced. 

“When my kids participated in some programs this summer that were recommending masks, the default became no masks, because everybody wanted to be, like (another parent) said, normal,” Chase said to the board. “If the leadership is not telling us that it’s mandatory, then the default will be not to wear our masks. So, we would appreciate some very strong guidance on the masks for unvaccinated people. When we can’t meet the social distance three-feet guideline, the masks are just an extra precautionary measure that we would like for us to make mandatory for unvaccinated persons.”

After hearing parent comments, Charron spoke on many of the concerns presented. He reiterated that school districts and local health departments are charged with what safety precautions their schools will enforce and how they will do so. 

Even with the Delta variant’s presence increasing in many locations across the country, Charron and the Monroe County Health Department still project the school year can start without a strict masking mandate. 

Yet, this is subject to change at any point in time. 

“While we at this point are not ready to say that we’re going to require everyone to wear a mask or require unvaccinated students to wear a mask, we’re not ready to say that yet, if we have reason to believe that there are cases or potential spread occurring in our buildings, then we will be ready to require that,” Charron said, later elaborating, “We will have full school days with kids here, and I think that is a long time to wear a mask. If we need to do it for our safety in our community, we will certainly do that.”  

Wes said a quote from Monroe County Health Administrator John Wagner published in an earlier edition of the Republic-Times prompted his concern that Wagner’s personal opinions may get tied up in local control procedure. 

The July 7 article explained the health department will consider and enforce mitigations depending on number of cases, as well as other data, the county sees. It will, in Wagner’s words, “not react prior to events happening like we have been through this whole thing based on experts that have been wrong 90 percent of the time.” 

Wes read Wagner’s quote directly, stating he believed the “experts that have been wrong 90 percent of the time” is what he takes issue with. 

“That’s what really hit me,” Wes said. “This was all stated in an article buried on page 7 of the Republic-Times in an article talking about how COVID (impacts) the county and the budget … and he states this fully out as a public health director heading up the county for the vaccines in this area … He’s saying they’re 90 percent wrong when 600,000 people have died in our country.” 

In response, Wagner said while he does not know the exact percentage of pandemic-related guidelines and requirements that have been rescinded, he stands behind his statement that there are many instances where they have later “ended up not being true.”

Wagner said he understands the reasons why such guidelines and requirements were given, as it was what was believed to be best at the time, and his statement was not related to any personal politics. 

“I’m not saying that it’s just one side of the political spectrum or the other. Both sides have come out with statements that have ended up not being accurate. So to react and lock kids out of school or make them do something extreme at school, (like an) A-B schedule or half days, without any hard science behind it, at this point I feel the best thing is to wait, be ready to react quickly when we actually see something start happening on the ground,” Wagner said.  

Charron strongly encouraged unvaccinated students to mask up, stating not doing so can have consequences that not only impact individual students, but their classmates – and possibly entire schools. 

“In our community, what I’ve been hearing is a majority of people do not want their kids to wear masks,” Charron said. “My message to them is we need your kids to wear masks if they’re not vaccinated, and if they don’t, that’s going to increase the number of quarantines that are likely to happen, and it’s going to increase the likelihood that we will have to close school down for a week, two weeks, or whatever is determined necessary to stop the spread.” 

He also informed meeting attendees that Illinois school boards are awaiting updated guidance on quarantine procedure. 

Wagner previously said local health departments are the entities tasked with enforcing local quarantine. While he has not gotten definite guidance as of yet, he said he assumes IDPH will recommend a procedure similar to that of the present. 

Wagner said the current quarantine rule states unvaccinated people must quarantine if they were within six feet of an individual who tested positive if either individual is unmasked. He said vaccinated people do not need to quarantine if they come in close contact with somebody who tested positive. 

Charron said remote learning is required for unvaccinated individuals under quarantine orders. 

Wagner said students of vaccination age should seek vaccines before the start of school to avoid having to remote learn if they come in contact with an infected individual. 

“The best thing is 12 to 18 or 19, whatever seniors are, get vaccinated,” Wagner said. “You will not be taken out as a close contact then, and you’ll be able to play sports and everything else.”

Waterloo leadership are not the only school officials navigating COVID-19 recommendations. 

Gibault Catholic High School took to Facebook to announce the Diocesan Guidelines and it will provide “further specific guidance” as summer winds down. 

A letter from the Diocese of Belleville Superintendent of Schools specifies the Catholic schools and parish religious education programs are to adopt CDC guidelines, specifying “This means that fully vaccinated individuals are not required to wear a mask and that parents of unvaccinated students individually determine if their children will wear a mask while attending school or religious education gatherings.” 

It further adds vaccination status is a personal decision to be made within families. Like Waterloo and other area school districts, Gibault will not require vaccination to participate in school events and activities. 

It specifies no individual is required to disclose their vaccination status. 

The Republic-Times will continue to provide information on COVID-19 as it relates to schools as more information arises.

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