Under pressure from the Illinois State Board of Education, local school districts this week are complying with a state-ordered mask mandate. But not without some looking to pursue legal action against the state.
Monday the Altamont Unit 10 Board of Education decided unanimously to change its return-to-school plan to require masks indoors, falling in line with Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s mask mandate for K-12 schools, after being put on probation by ISBE for refusing to do so. Prior to Monday’s meeting, masks were only recommended. The changes go into effect Wednesday.
Board Secretary Alan Kollmann had concerns about how the mask requirement would be enforced.
Superintendent Casey Adam said it was her understanding that last school year mask wearing was not a problem.
“I would say the very best way is for all of us to be in it together. Parents, teachers, everybody because if we aren’t all in it together then we end up fighting one another and that is not where the fight belongs,” said Adam.
Adam provided a handout with names, addresses and phone numbers all of the state and federal elected representatives serving the Altamont school district area.
“That’s where the fight is at this point,” Adam said referring to elected officials. “It’s not anyone in this room or the school.”
“For me personally, it all comes down to one thing and that is trying to keep our kids in school,” said board member Dane Milleville. “I think everyone would agree that is where they do their best learning and that should be our primary objective.”
But he added, “It think no matter how we vote tonight, for me personally, we (school board) have to address the issue of losing our local control over our school. That is something I’m going to be working on.”
Board member Martin Reyes said to those attending the meeting that it is important for citizens to contact their representatives.
“We don’t make the laws or the mandates. We are supposed to be an apolitical group,” Reyes said. “You need to be as vocal as you have in the past meetings to these people (elected politicians). Call your representatives, call the governor, send letters.”
Board President Dale Laue reiterated the goal of the board is to keep kids in school and not go to a remote learning situation.
“We are doing it for the kids and we’re doing it for our school,” Laue said. “We have our finances in a decent place and we don’t want to loose that or jeopardize it.”
ISBE has put dozens of public and nonpublic school systems on probationary status for refusing to comply with the mandate, including Altamont, Beecher City, North Clay, Dieterich, Shelbyville, Teutopolis, St. Elmo, Brownstown and South Central.
Under the state’s administrative code, schools can be placed on probation for “deficiencies that present a health hazard or a danger to students or staff.” When that happens, the schools are given 60 days to submit a plan for correcting the deficiency and, if they fail to do so, risk losing their state recognition and funding altogether.
That concerned Altamont School Board member Kerry Wolff.
“We learned last week not only would an uncertified school loose state funding, an uncertified school can’t file a tax levy, which we do in November,” Wolff said. “So, you hit a point in 2 1/2 months where we’ve got to be certified or there is not state money coming and there’s no tax levy coming.”
Wolff questioned where the revenue would come from to fund the district’s schools if state and local funding is taken away.
“There are seven of us (board members) and it’s a $7 million budget. I don’t have a million dollars to pony up to pay for my share,” he said. “It’s impossible.”
Wolff said it’s not about the masks anymore. It’s about kids getting an education.
Kendra Walker was one of about 30 attending the meeting. She has a freshman and a senior at Altamont Community High School.
“I’m not here to debate whether or not masks work or not. I’m concerned about the seniors not getting their diploma when they finish school,” she said.
“My question is what do you know that we don’t know about this mandate. Is it truly unlawful?” Walker asked the board. “And where do you see the future if we continue to fight it. How much will be sacrificed in the meantime? What is this going to mean for my kid?”
Rebecca Sharp also addressed the board. She is a nurse who works for a cancer center with immunocompromised patients and also works weekends at Sarah Bush Lincoln hospital in Mattoon.
“They currently have 30 patients with COVID, two are vaccinated. So out of 30, there’s two,” Sharp said. “You don’t want to watch somebody die of COVID and you especially don’t want your children to die of COVID and I can say that with experience. I have watched people die in the ICU from COVID.”
“I don’t want anyone’s child in this community to have to suffer from COVID, not mine, not yours, not anyone’s,” she said. “If you think you can’t wear a mask from eight to 12 hours, you certainly can. I’ve done it with a N95 on.”
Vince Myers thought wearing masks would limit his 3-year-old son’s ability to learn. He said his son was learning more this year without a mask than last year when masks were required.
“So far this year even though it’s only been a week, it’s been absolutely amazing. Just being able to attend school and not wear a mask, he can see his peers talk and he can see his teachers talk,” Myers said. “Witnessing the change in his vocabulary and he is speaking in complete sentences.”
Other area school districts also changed their mask recommendations Monday.
St. Elmo School Board approved a revised back-to-school plan following CDC, IDPH and ISBE guidelines requiring universal masking indoors for all students, staff and visitors.
The North Clay Board of Education on a motion “under protest” approved 5-2 to follow the state’s mask mandate effective Wednesday. However, the board also unanimously approved a motion to authorize the superintendent to explore the option to pursue legal action against the State of Illinois and any other entities imposing sanctions against North Clay District 25 schools.
Beecher City School Board is also considering legal action during its special meeting Wednesday at which members also will consider changing the district’s mask recommendation.
On Tuesday, Brownstown School District voted to require masks, starting Sept. 7, after previously only recommending them. South Central did the same, starting Wednesday, posting on its website, "This was an impossible decision, however, the fiscal responsibility and consequences aimed at our students left little options."
The post further stated, "We would like everyone to come together as a united front and ask for your cooperation to limit the distraction from educating our students, which is our number one priority, of this challenging mitigation strategy."
Members of the Dieterich Unit 30 School Board decided to require masks, with six voting under protest and one not under protest.
A crowd of approximately 40 people were on hand, most in opposition of a mask mandate. The board allowed time for public comment before discussing the possible consequences and alternatives to requiring masks.
Board Secretary Charity Bohnhoff discussed ways the board could possibly delay its decision.
“I am wondering how much time we can buy ourselves,” Bohnhoff said.
Bohnhoff explored the idea of possibly getting an extension to get more input from students and staff members about masking. However, IHSA and IESA said schools that are not members in good standing with the Illinois State Board of Education on Sept. 3 are not eligible for post-season play.
The board also discussed the possibility of hiring an attorney to represent them.
“There is interest in trying to fight this, but there is not many options,” Bohnhoff said. “The last I heard there are only two attorneys that are willing to fight it out of everyone who has been contacted.”
The board went into closed session for a little over 30 minutes before coming back with their final mask requirement decision.
The mask mandate goes into effect Thursday.
In Teutopolis, the board deadlocked over whether to follow the state’s mandate, voting instead to continue with their current recommendation for face coverings.
Board President Courtney Tegeler and Secretary Chandler Hewing voted to move forward with a mask mandate, while board members Erin Ordner and Toby McMahon voted no, scuttling the motion. Board member Troy Ozenkoski was not at the meeting. The rejection of the vote means that the district remains in the Illinois State Board of Education’s probationary phase for schools that do not comply with the governor’s mask mandate. A letter was sent to the district on Aug. 19 warning them of the consequences of non-compliance. The district has 60 days from the date that the letter was sent to comply with the mandate.
Those consequences could include the loss of state accreditation, which could mean the loss of state and federal funding to the district. Athletes participating in sports or other extracurricular activities could lose eligibility for state competitions.
The vote followed more than 30 minutes of spirited debate among members of the community, the vast majority of which called on the board to vote against any mandate for masks. Some were even tearful as they warned of the consequences of the vote.
Lisa Hutson, a parent with two children at Teutopolis Grade School, said that she hated the fact that her youngest child was introduced to education and her peers during this period of time.
“I hate that this is how she gets to know school, her teachers and her friends,” Hutson said. “I’m so worried about how this is going to affect her ability to show emotion, to understand what people are thinking and to make friends.”
Despite their votes to move toward a mandate, Hewing and Tegeler moved forward under “extreme protest.” Hewing felt that state officials were using students like those in Teutopolis to advance a political agenda.
“The state is using our kids as bullets, using them to fight against us,” Hewing said. “We need to do what we can for these kids, keep them in place and fight this. I am just fed up with the stupidity of what’s going on.”
The mask changes come amid a growing number of COVID cases in Effingham County. The Effingham County Health Department announced 47 new virus cases over the weekend, including 14 children and teens. The county’s positivity rate was 14.7% as of Aug. 24, while the region’s was 8.2%.
Effingham County is in an area of high transmission as defined by the CDC and recommends that unvaccinated and fully vaccinated people wear masks indoors in these areas. “High” transmission is 100 or more cases per 100,000, or a positivity rate of 10% or higher.