Schools make COVID plans

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Last week, the Illinois State Board of Education announced a highly anticipated statement regarding mask usage in schools.

Many found the original statement confusing, but after some clarification, it appears schools are to recommend unvaccinated occupants wear masks, although they are not required to. 

On Friday, ISBE informed administrators across the state that the Illinois Health Department fully adopted the CDC’s updated Guidance for COVID-19 Prevention in K-12 Schools. In turn, both public and private Illinois schools are to follow this guidance. 

On the topic of masks, the guidance said they should be worn by individuals who are not fully vaccinated, however, mask wearing is not required. 

Yet, in the same ISBE email that mentioned IDPH “fully adopted” the CDC guidance, State Superintendent of Education Carmen Ayala wrote one of the major points of CDC guidance was “requiring masks only for individuals who are not fully vaccinated.” 

This change in wording left many administrators confused, said Waterloo Superintendent Brian Charron. He also expressed it sparked concern as to how, if schools were to require unvaccinated children to wear masks, they could legally enforce it. 

The following day, ISBE released another statement which quoted the CDC’s exact language that “masks should be worn indoors by all individuals (ages 2 and older) who are not vaccinated.” 

From Charron and Monroe County Health Department Administrator John Wagner’s understanding, this means schools do not have to mandate mask requirements for unvaccinated individuals. 

Local school boards do have the authority to implement mask mandates in their schools if they choose to, Columbia Superintendent Chris Grode explained. This was not the route Columbia School District chose to take, as it will be implementing a “mask optional” policy – regardless of one’s vaccination status – for the beginning of the school year. 

This policy holds for all grade levels in the district. 

Grode said this decision was based on Monroe County’s COVID-19 numbers being so low recently. 

Stacey Halteman, who has children in the Columbia School District and also has a background in education, said she agrees with this policy. Halteman said whether one is vaccinated or not, they should still be able to decide if they want to wear a mask. 

“If people are vaccinated, then (they’re) safe. That’s what the whole vaccination is about, so that (people) are protected,” Halteman said. “So I feel like it should be optional then for masks. If they don’t feel like they want to wear masks, then I feel like they should be able to make that choice … if we don’t want to get rid of them completely, then please make it a choice so that we have options.” 

Halteman said she thinks when children are required to wear masks, it may compromise their education, so children should be able to do what they are most comfortable with.

“I think that (wearing masks) hinders the children’s education and that they cannot focus and they are miserable in those masks and there’s less class discussion … because when they’re wearing the masks, they don’t speak as much,” Halteman said.

Waterloo school district mom Brittany Sue Rusteberg, who has worked in early childhood education, said she is disappointed with Columbia’s “mask optional” decision, as she worries how it might impact children with underlying medical conditions, like her daughter who has asthma. 

“That is so sad Columbia would decide that,” Rusteberg said. “Masks don’t work fully if everyone isn’t wearing one. (It) breaks my heart for the kids who have health issues and how their family is feeling at the moment. School is supposed to make kids feel safe, and my daughter only feels safe around kids with masks.” 

She said one kid choosing not to wear a mask could influence a whole class’s decision. 

“Kids are so ‘monkey see, monkey do,” Rusteberg said. “So (if) one doesn’t wear it in the classroom, no one is going to wear it.”

While technically Waterloo School District is not issuing a mask mandate for the start of the school year, Charron stressed those who are not vaccinated will be encouraged to mask up, and – depending on how COVID-19 presents in Monroe County students – Waterloo and the health department may decide to change policy throughout the year.

“We strongly encourage unvaccinated individuals to wear a mask, but we will not deny access to education to anyone not wearing a mask,” Charron said, later explaining this is contingent on the local transmission of the virus remaining low. If there is a spread of the virus in Monroe County but it is not related to school functions, Waterloo may not decide to issue a mask mandate.  

However, Wagner said the local health department may implement masking and other prevention requirements, but only in response to outbreaks. Administrators will also be included in such discussions. This local control was stressed in the CDC guidelines. 

“Localities should monitor community transmission, vaccination coverage, screening testing and occurrence of outbreaks to guide decisions on the level of layered prevention strategies (e.g., physical distancing, screening testing),” the CDC guidance said. 

Wagner said monitoring cases will be a team effort between administrators and the Monroe County Health Department, and regulations will be issued on a school-by-school basis, as those under age 12 cannot be vaccinated as of now. 

“All of the superintendents and everything are going to be working closely with us to keep an eye on what’s going on,” Wagner said. “From what I understand … IDPH and (ISBE) are putting out guidance rather than rules, … so now (control) has kind of been passed back down to the locals. I’m glad that they’re passing it back to the locals who can really keep a specific eye and can enact mitigation measures as issues come up, rather than just blanketing (regulations) … so, leaving the locals to deal with each school, even each classroom independently, is going to be a benefit and help us try to keep them in school.” 

Per CDC guidelines, all forms of enclosed mass transit, including school buses, currently have mask requirements.

The CDC guidance also recommends schools should keep students at least three feet apart when in classrooms, however, it understands this is not always possible so it should not exclude students from attending school in-person. 

“When it is not possible to maintain a physical distance of at least three feet, such as when schools cannot fully reopen while maintaining these distances, it is especially important to layer multiple other prevention strategies, such as indoor masking,” the guidance states. 

Wagner said as of right now, there are no conversations surrounding student vaccination requirements. He explained a large factor in this is that the COVID-19 vaccines have not yet received full FDA approval. 

“From what I hear from the state, that is not even going to be considered at the public school level, there’s no talk of that at all,” Wagner said of school vaccination requirements. “As of right now … it’s still under emergency use, it has not been fully approved yet … so, I don’t even know that they could make it mandatory if they wanted to. Will it eventually be mandatory? That will remain to be seen. You see it (becoming mandatory) in colleges and workplaces now. So, will it ever be there at the school level? I have to say probably yes, at some point.”

The CDC’s full guidance can be found at cdc.gov/coronavirus.

As of press time, Valmeyer Community Unit School District 3 had not issued a statement on its 2021-22 COVID-19 procedures.

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