Tia Probst and Lilly Jansen and Macy Swingler

Tia Probst, left, Lilly Jansen, center, and Macy Swingler speak on behalf of students at Teutopolis High School Wednesday at a special board meeting for Teutopolis Unit 50 schools. The board approved a mask mandate by a reluctant 4-1 vote.

TEUTOPOLIS — The Teutopolis Unit 50 School Board this week joined most other area districts and approved a mask mandate for all students and staff, effective Friday.

The board voted 4-1, with Erin Ordner being the lone no vote, to go along with Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s mandate that requires masks or face coverings be worn by anyone on school grounds.

The board did so “under protest,” allowing it to explore legal options as they deem fit.

Teutopolis initially voted to only recommend masks on Aug. 16. That spurred the Illinois State Board of Education to place the district on probation on Aug. 19 for 60 days. At a special meeting Aug. 31, the board deadlocked 2-2, with Troy Ozenkoski absent from the meeting. Had the mandate not been approved by the board after 60 days, the district would have lost all accreditation from ISBE — meaning a loss of state and federal funding, along with ineligibility for state athletic and extracurricular competitions.

As of ISBE’s latest report on Wednesday, Beecher City Unit 20 was the only Effingham County school district to remain on probation. The school board there recently hired an attorney to fight the state’s mandate.

The potential for ineligibility for athletes and the Teutopolis program in general was a motivating factor for some who spoke for the mandate, in contrast to the Aug. 31 meeting where nearly all of the public comments opposed it.

Brian Hardiek, a parent in Teutopolis, said he never thought that he would have to stand in front of the school board and ask them to do something he personally opposed. But the fact that his daughter, a basketball player, couldn’t compete in state competitions overrode his personal beliefs.

Brian Hardiek

Brian Hardiek, a parent at Teutopolis Unit 50 Schools, implores the school board to implement a mask mandate Wednesday at a special meeting for the board. They voted 4-1 to implement a mask mandate, albeit reluctantly.

“Izzy has worked so hard to make herself and the whole team better,” Hardiek said. “This is about so much more than that, more than basketball. It’s about the high school band, the junior high boys baseball team, junior high girls softball, FFA (and) high school volleyball. This is all important. It’s about our seniors being able to graduate.

“The fact that our governor is using our hard work and dedication against us makes my blood boil. That being said, at this point, I need to ask our board members to vote to approve the mask mandate.”

Fellow parent Rich Probst shared Hardiek’s disdain for masks, but felt they were necessary to maintain opportunities for the students.

“What do we have to gain by continuing to go against this mandate?” Probst said. “This is going to be won or lost in a courtroom. It’s not going to be won or lost because one school district decides to be bull-headed. If we vote to go against this mask mandate, opportunities are going to be taken away from these young kids.”

Several students also stood up to make their voices heard.

A trio of volleyball players — Macy Swingler, Tia Probst and Lilly Jansen — asked the board to approve the mandate so they can play on their home court and showcase their skills for college coaches.

“We don’t get to experience home games,” Swingler said. “We don’t get that joy and excitement of having fans, and our families don’t get to watch us because our games are half an hour to an hour away.”

The team’s efforts to play a game to benefit the family of Elizabeth Weidner, a Teutopolis High School student and cancer survivor, have been scuttled by the school’s probationary period and inability to play games at home. Swingler said that without the mandate being passed, they may have had to ask another school to play a home game on their court.

“Teams won’t come play us because we don’t have a mask mandate,” Swingler said.

In contrast, Sam Thompson, a senior at THS, said that he and others like him were tired of having to deal with the issue and wanted the board to stand strong and fight against the mandate and Pritzker’s leadership.

Sam Thompson

Sam Thompson, a senior at Teutopolis High School, speaks against the implementation of a mask mandate Wednesday at a special board meeting for Unit 50 Schools. Despite Thompson’s polemic, the board reluctantly voted 4-1 to approve the mandate.

“How ‘T-Town’ is it for us to be one of the few schools in the state to stare a tyrant in the face and say no?” Thompson said. “What we have done here shows strength, honor and patriotism. Will it really mean anything if we bow down and comply while we do it? If we say no and take action at the same time, we’ll be on the map and potentially inspire others to do the same.”

The discussion among board members largely focused on the negative implications that not complying would mean for the schools, and their opinions of how the state has handled districts that, until now, have refused to play along.

Ozenkoski said that if the district did not comply, all of the hard work that students put in toward their achievements would be lost.

Troy Ozenkoski and Toby McMahon

Troy Ozenkoski, front, and Toby McMahon, members of the Teutopolis Unit 50 school board, listen to suggestions and debate Wednesday night at a special meeting of the board. The two of them voted reluctantly to approve a mask mandate for anyone on school grounds in the district.

“If we continue down this path, we lose our accreditation,” Ozenkoski said. “All of the hard work that our students put in for 12 years goes down the drain.”

Board President Courtney Tegeler criticized Pritzker and state agencies for ruling with what she called an “iron fist” instead of asking districts to come up with their own plans, suited to local situations.

Matthew Sturgeon and Courtney Tegeler

Matthew Sturgeon, left, the superintendent of Teutopolis Unit 50 Schools, and Courtney Tegeler, the board president, carefully consider their options Wednesday, Sept. 8, at a special district board meeting. The board reluctantly voted 4-1 to implement a mask mandate in line with that of the rest of Illinois.

“In my mind, my opinion of a good governor would have been able to inspire people to follow his direction,” Tegeler said. “Had he said, ‘All of you schools, please come up with an action plan of your own and turn it in to us so we can approve it,’ we could have used our own discretion. Unfortunately, he’s (Pritzker) not an inspiring leader.”

Despite the board’s approval of the mandate, they indicated that they would be seeking legal action in order to maintain a level of local control over future processes instigated by ISBE or other government agencies.

Superintendent Matthew Sturgeon provided the board with a series of legal options, including asking their legal counsel, Miller, Tracy, Braun, Funk & Miller to file a suit on their behalf, joining with other schools and filing a lawsuit that way, or partnering with other schools filing pro-bono suits against the state.

The board tabled the options for a later date, but Sturgeon said he would fight for the board’s position of local control for their district.

“We continue to draft documents to be able to send publicly to our legislators, to the governor’s office (and) to the Illinois State Board of Education,” Sturgeon said. “We do believe in this idea of local control. We do believe that locally elected members of public bodies are the persons best suited to meet the needs and interests of their local communities, constituents and students.”

Zach Roth can be reached at zach.roth@effinghamdailynews.com or by phone at (217) 347-7151 ext. 132 or (217) 899-4338.

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Reporter, Effingham Daily News

Reporter for the Effingham Daily News, covering city government, local business and state representatives.