Mask madness at school board meeting

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Similar to its last meeting, COVID matters largely took center stage at Monday’s Waterloo School Board meeting. 

But this time, the police were called.

After addressing the board stating his discontent with Gov. JB Pritzker’s school mask mandate and Waterloo’s compliance, resident James Link refused to put his mask back on at the meeting. 

He was subsequently escorted into a hallway by two Waterloo police officers and arrested for criminal trespass to state supported property after refusing to leave the premises, Waterloo Police Chief Jeff Prosise confirmed.

Prosise also said no force was used by officers. Link was taken into custody. 

Monroe County State’s Attorney Lucas Liefer is reviewing the incident before determining an official charge. As of Friday, Oct. 22, Liefer said it is “under advisement.”

The WPD gave an update on the situation via its Facebook page, stating in part, “The Waterloo Police Department was forced to arrest the attendee. The attendee complied with the arrest and the minimal amount of force used to secure the attendee in handcuffs pursuant to Waterloo Police Department policy.”

In the 3-5 minutes Link was allowed for public comment, he asserted that two recent court actions – both cases being argued elsewhere in the state by attorney Thomas DeVore – prove the Waterloo school district cannot require anyone to wear a mask unless they are under an “official quarantine order” from their local health department. 

Last week, a judge ruled three Effingham County students could not be forced by the school to wear masks unless the county health department issued such an order. During a case in August, a judge in Clinton County issued an enjoinment preventing Carlyle Community Unit School District No. 1 from excluding a child from in-person education due to COVID concerns without a quarantine order from the local health department. 

“Translated: None of the kids have to wear masks. Courts in multiple counties said only the county health department can issue quarantine orders,” Link said after summarizing the rulings. “So what does this mean? It means you cannot force students or staff to wear a mask without an order of quarantine. It’s illegal and backed up by law.”

He followed by encouraging the board to vote on the masking policy, and that if they continued to enforce Pritzker’s mandate he would begin the process of bringing a lawsuit against the district. In April, Link complained to the board about having to wear a mask when attending Waterloo High School football games.

When school board member Gary Most told Link he needed to mask up, Link asked Most to present “an order of quarantine,” following up with “You show it to me and I’ll put the mask on.” 

With that, the board took a recess. Link used this time to give his contact information to other audience members – particularly those interested in his planned lawsuit. Within a week of the meeting, Link started a GiveSendGo campaign, which is a Christian-based GoFundMe of sorts, to gather donations to pay for an attorney as well as gather people who want to be involved in the suit.

As board members began filing back into the board room, two Waterloo police officers arrived and ushered Link into the hallway. At this point, the audience erupted in protest, calling the school board “cowards.” One even called them “communists.” 

The police asked one particularly disgruntled audience member to leave, at which point that man’s wife followed him into the hallway where Link was, recording the incident with her phone. 

“You guys should be absolutely ashamed! This is not American! He can’t have an opinion that you guys are cowards? You’re offended that he called you a coward? Disgusting!” the wife shouted before exiting. 

With the door being shut, the public comment portion of the meeting resumed. 

With shouts continuing from the hallway, Lloyd Jarden, a parent within the school district, said he too had concerns over the legality of the school’s COVID procedure. He was most concerned, however, as to if the Illinois State Board of Education had lawful authority to take away districts’ accreditation, and therefore funding, should they not follow the governor’s order. 

Kasey Johnson, another district parent, said in addition to the rulings cited by Link, she believes Illinois statutes are at odds with the close contact exclusion policy. 

“The school is not legally able to deny our children public education due to the Illinois statutes. I understand the mandates are contrary, but JB Pritzker’s mandates are not legally binding,” she said, quoting Madison County state’s attorney to bolster her point.

Much of Jarden’s concerns related to potential consequences of healthy kids being excluded from school due to being close contacts – many of which were discussed by parents at Columbia’s school board meeting last month. 

He took particular issue with Waterloo excluding more students as close contacts than other districts. Toward the end of his prepared remarks, Jarden offered potential solutions to this, suggesting the district better limit lunch times, remove bookcases from classrooms to allow for more social distancing and more.  

“There is no reason for Waterloo to be excluding substantially more students than any other district in our area,” Jarden said, earlier having stated, “Today’s COVID world requires more. It requires more from every worker in society. The district requires more from the parents each day … but the administration has been unable to implement protocols to keep kids in school, such as setting an egg timer for 15 minutes at lunch? I found this extremely disappointing.” 

Monroe County Health Department Administrator John Wagner confirmed Waterloo is taking out more students than other area districts and is following the same rules as all others, but this fact “really doesn’t mean what (Jarden) wants it to be.” 

Wagner explained that Waterloo is following the same close contact exclusion rules as others, and the larger number of students being excluded for this reason may be the result of alternative factors. He said having less lunchroom space, crowded buses, smaller classrooms and/or larger class sizes and the frequency of students changing classes are a few examples of what could be causing Waterloo seeing more close contacts. 

While Jarden understands these factors, he said if Waterloo were to take more proactive approaches, such as those mentioned in Columbia’s August school board meeting, Waterloo would have fewer kids excluded as close contacts. Jarden specifically referenced Wagner’s suggestion at Columbia’s meeting of limiting lunch period times. Jarden said his son was excluded from school because he was in the lunchroom unmasked for mere seconds over the 15-minute threshold, and that if lunch periods were to be limited, this would not have happened. 

While school board president Lori Dillenberger prefaced the public participation portion of the meeting with a reminder that this portion is not a conversation between the board and the public, Superintendent Brian Charron later told the Republic-Times the district will continue enforcing the mask mandate.

“We are under an executive order from the governor and we have been issued rules from the Illinois State Board of Education that we are to abide by,” Charron said. 

In reference to another state mandate, Charron sent an email to Waterloo School District employees on Tuesday. 

Per COVID-19 Executive Order No. 88 and subsequent rules from ISBE, all Illinois school personnel who are fully vaccinated must provide documentation of this before Friday. 

Those who are not fully vaccinated must submit test results before the end of the school week. 

Charron’s email asked employees who have not provided vaccination records to communicate if they will be submitting test results in compliance with the order.

“For those that have indicated non-compliance, we are arranging for your substitute,” Charron’s email stressed. “Thank you for communicating your intent. This helps us plan appropriately for Monday. Please officially submit your personal time request.

For the additional employees that haven’t communicated either way, please do so. I will have a tough decision to make on Friday morning. At this point, we are seeking permission to go with full remote learning, starting Monday morning, due to too many employees excluded from school premises,” Charron’s email read. 

This email also informed school personnel the Regional Office of Education will be offering SHIELD testing to unvaccinated school personnel Wednesday at Chester or on Thursday at Waterloo Junior High School. Kelton Davis, Regional Superintendent of Schools for Monroe and Randolph counties, provided a detailed explanation of the vaccine/testing mandate for school personnel.  

Wednesday afternoon, Charron sent an email to parents of students with an update saying Waterloo schools should remain open at this time.

“Approximately 85 percent of our employees communicated with us in a timely manner. Enough of the employees that remain have now provided their proof of vaccination, signed up for testing, or have otherwise communicated their objections, that we can now move forward with securing substitutes and we can confidently state that we will remain open next week for in-person learning (barring any other unanticipated circumstances),” the email read.

As of Friday, Charron said he has not heard of any other threats of lawsuits. He also reiterated that school personnel who do not comply with COVID-19 Executive Order No. 88 – either by submitting proof of vaccination status or submitting weekly test results – will not be paid after their personal days are used. 

Columbia Superintendent Chris Grode said his district is recognizing the Health Care Right of Conscience Act as protecting employees who are not fully vaccinated and will not complete weekly COVID testing. For more on this, click here.

Charron made it clear Friday that Waterloo is not taking this stance, as “it’s not an option that the state is allowing.”

Budget approved

Following the public comments portion Monday night, the board unanimously approved the 2021-22 school district budget that was presented at the beginning of the meeting. 

Charron described the district’s financial standing according to the budget as “super healthy.” The budget includes, Charron said, anticipated expenditures and their respective costs as well as anticipated revenues. 

“We think we’re going to be overspending by about $960,000, which sounds really bad, but when we have $21 million (presently), spending almost $1 million is not that bad,” Charron summarized. 

The budget estimates the district will be in the red in four categories: educational, operations and maintenance, debt service and transportation. 

It predicts the district will have $19,628,266 in revenues and $21,001,067 in expenditures regarding the educational category. In turn, the district is estimated to be in the red by over $1 million in this category. 

“We’ve added staff (due to COVID) in addition to salary increases being negotiated,” Charron explained of the deficit. 

He said increases in wages of maintenance workers has also contributed to the increased expenditures in the operations and maintenance fund. The budget estimates the district will be spending almost $4 million on operations and maintenance and will be bringing in a little over $3 million. 

The budget estimates the district will spend $2,150,434 on transportation-related expenses and will bring in related revenues totalling $2,021,253. This puts the district just $129,181 in the red. 

Despite these deficits, the district will have positive fund balances in all categories at the end of the year. 

The board and remaining audience members also heard from the American Heart Association and Waterloo FFA. For more on this, see next week’s paper. 

The regular Waterloo School Board meeting will be at 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 18, at Gardner Elementary School. 

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