With Monday night’s Waterloo School Board meeting drawing an even larger crowd than last month, Gardner Elementary’s cafeteria became the backdrop for the meeting.
Parents sat at the same tables students do on a day-to-day basis, some of whom had notes in tow in preparation for public comment.
One theme came up over and over again. These parents are dissatisfied with the district’s handling of state-outlined COVID procedure and felt they were being left in the dark about crucial topics.
Calls to push back
Before opening the floor for public comment, Waterloo Superintendent Brian Charron reiterated that the district will continue to comply with all mandates.
“We want to remind you that we are under a mandate from the governor with clear directions from the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Illinois State Board of Education and of those our insurance company, our law firm, our Regional Office of Education and our local health department all tell us that we have to follow those. So please understand what’s going on up here is us adhering to the guidelines that are dictated to us by the state,” Charron said.
This did not stop community members from expressing discontent with the policies.
Citing an array of legal proceedings previously mentioned at other local school board meetings, Jon Elder, a Waterloo High School parent, said the district needs to get involved.
“If legal precedent is currently being established and restraining orders against the state are happening, let’s consider stand(ing) up to this,” Elder said. “It’s what the community wants. It’s what our kids deserve.”
Amanda Propst, another parent, said she was disappointed in Waterloo’s response to COVID-19 Executive Order No. 88, which requires school personnel to either be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or submit weekly test results.
Some Illinois school districts, under advice of legal counsel, are arguing that the Health Care Right of Conscience Act bars schools from restricting employment due to one’s refusal to be vaccinated or tested.
Waterloo is not one of these districts.
“Waterloo parents have watched surrounding districts cite the Health Care Right of Conscience Act to ensure that teachers could remain in the classroom. In regards to that matter, Mr. Charron is quoted as saying the decision is simple, (he said) ‘It is not an option the state is allowing.’ Yet, they are apparently allowing it in Columbia,” Propst said, then referencing an email sent before the district knew it would have enough compliance for in-person learning. “You could have prevented the tug-of-war between you and your employees, but instead you threatened to close the school and sacrifice our children’s well-being again.”
After stating she fears “conflicts of interest” are why the school board is complying with Gov. JB Pritzker’s executive orders – including how one board member’s employer is included on Illinois’ budget and another board member works closely with this entity – Propst called for resignations.
“There are so many conflicts of interest here that I’m not sure you are capable of making decisions that benefit anyone other than yourselves, and so I renew the calls of those before me who have asked you to step down so that someone who has the integrity and the courage to take back local control may take your place,” Propst said, concluding with, “We will not be silenced and we will keep standing here until you join us in doing what is right for the students of Waterloo.”
With that, she returned to her seat amid a standing ovation from parents.
The school board members Propst alluded to but did not name declined to comment.
Kelton Davis, regional superintendent of schools for Monroe and Randolph counties, spoke after the parents.
“We have been fighting this federalism for 20 years in our school,” Davis said, later saying “We’ve finally gotten to a point where our government has done too much.”
Davis reiterated that the school board’s hands are tied on the matter, and change therefore must be made at higher levels.
“(The board) is getting crapped on by the state board of education. It’s as simple as that,” Davis said, earlier having remarked, “This is a big political statement here, and again, I am very glad to have so much passion and people ready to engage. But I think we all need to do it together and make those changes. Change starts at the state level and the federal level.”
Parents not only spoke on dissatisfaction with the mandates, but how Waterloo was enforcing them.
Elder said as a youth minister, he has seen how students are impacted by this first hand.
“I had two teenagers that just recently got detentions because they didn’t have their mask over their nose. These are good kids. These are kids who have never in their scholastic career served a detention or been in trouble for anything but because they didn’t have their precious security blanket over their nose, they got detentions, and it wrecked them. It wrecked them to the point where they were dealing with depression and sadness,” Elder said. “We cannot have this. If we are going to keep these stupid masks in place, we are going to have to extend grace.”
Calls for communication
Parents who spoke often expressed feeling pressing questions were ignored by the school board and superintendent.
Propst said when she emailed Charron in April inquiring about the upcoming school year plans, she did not receive a response.
“Whoever sent the letter in April, holy cow! We couldn’t even figure out from the state board, IDPH or the governor’s office what was even going on in May, let alone the following school year. They didn’t notify us of anything until two weeks before school started!” Davis said, referencing Propst’s email.
She responded that a response explaining school administration did not have any information would have been appreciated, instead of her email going unanswered.
Charron made it clear that while that specific concern may not have been addressed, stating “On April 23, I didn’t know what graduation was going to look like,” he has communicated with Propst on other COVID-related matters.
Lloyd Jarden, a Waterloo parent who also spoke at the September board meeting, said he asked for information regarding exclusions to be shared at this meeting.
“Over a month ago, I first submitted a request for the number of cases and mitigation measures to be spoken at the last meeting. Since then, I had submitted a follow-up email almost two weeks ago. I requested that this information be presented at the October meeting, but I received no response. Hopefully it will be addressed tonight, and it sounds like that is the intent,” Jarden said.
Charron addressed Jarden’s questions later in the meeting and reiterated that Jarden asked for the information to be presented at the board meeting and not sent to him directly.
Charron said that as of Monday, the district had four COVID-positive students and a total of 10 were being excluded from school. He explained that only one seemingly “healthy” student was being excluded as a close contact.
Test-to-stay protocol is only applicable for situations in which masks are properly worn, Charron said.
“Test-to-stay is only an option if the COVID-positive individual and close contact were both correctly wearing their masks. If one child was not wearing their mask properly, test-to-stay is not an option,” Charron said.
This, as Jarden asked to be clarified, is therefore not applicable to lunch time exposures.
Jarden had also asked about ESSER funding. As Waterloo Curriculum Coordinator John Schmieg previously told the Republic-Times, Waterloo is still working though the grant process for ESSER III.
Charron reminded meeting attendees that after a related committee meets this month, the budget will be put on display for the community to offer input.
Charron summarized this funding will most likely include additional staffing that has been hired to address learning loss and to keep class sizes low.
Charron and Waterloo School Board President Lori Dillenberger weighed in on the arrest that occured at last month’s meeting after Jeff Rock, who attended the meeting and witnessed events leading up to this arrest, expressed discontent with how the board handled that situation.
Rock was asked to leave the September meeting after he called the board “cowards” and “communists” in response to James Link being ushered into the hallway. He apologized Monday for what he called an “emotional outburst.”
“From a practical perspective, last month the board went out of their way to have a fellow person in the community arrested for not wearing (a mask) when we know that (they) don’t work. It’s cloth. It does nothing,” Rock said, later adding “(What) we’re looking for, at least, is just some humanity, and that’s why I kind of lost it. To go out of your way to get someone arrested for not wearing (a mask), that’s petty at the least.”
Dillenberger stressed that the board had given James Link, the man who was arrested, the opportunity to speak, and Charron mentioned how Link had encouraged that the incident be recorded.
Prior to the open portion of the meeting, the board held an executive session to discuss a student disciplinary case as well as personnel employment.
The board took one action item as a result of executive session, which was to uphold the suspension of a student. Charron said the student had appealed to the board regarding the suspension.
The board also voted to allow Charron to issue a request for qualifications for architectural services. Submitted RFQs will be used to select what Charron called the district’s “architect of record.” He explained the district may decide to continue their now decade-long relationship with Hurst-Roche as a result of the RFQs.
The proposed schedule stated the RFQ will be released on Oct. 20, with the submission due date being Nov. 17.
The district also approved Allen Siedle to be interim head boys basketball coach at WHS, as Scott Spinner recently resigned.
Toward the end of the meeting, board members Gary Most and Neil Giffhorn reminded remaining meeting attendees there are many positive things going on within the district. Drama club performances have been held, which the pandemic previously had made impossible.
Additionally, the WHS homecoming saw its largest attendence yet, even though it had to be held outside per safety concerns.