Genoa-Kingston, Sycamore school districts will make masks optional as parents speak out

Genoa-Kingston, Sycamore won’t mandate masks, but will encourage those unvaccinated to wear them indoors; masks on buses still required

SYCAMORE – Two DeKalb County school districts plan to make mask-wearing optional for students and staff days after federal and state health officials updated back-to-school guidance amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Friday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Illinois Department of Public Health and Illinois State Board of Education issued updated COVID-19 guidance coming academic year, which urged school districts to look to local data from health officials since vaccination and viral positivity rates vary so widely by state and county.

Sycamore School District 427 Superintendent Steve Wilder said the district will not require students and staff to wear face masks. Genoa-Kingston Superintendent Brent O’Daniell said masks will not be required but will be recommended indoors for those who aren’t vaccinated. Both districts will still require masks on buses per CDC guidance. DeKalb’s school board hasn’t yet met to discuss the guidance.

“It’s a good idea to wear a mask, especially if they’re unvaccinated, but students and staff will not be required to do that when they’re indoors,” Wilder said.

Wilder said the new guidance “was welcomed,” and the district is looking to have “as normal of a school year as possible” and will continue to monitor county data.

So far this week, six cases of COVID-19 have been identified in DeKalb County, continuing the low case trend as vaccination rates increase, according to local and state health officials, which show 42.45% of DeKalb County residents are fully vaccinated so far. The vaccine is not yet available to anyone under 12, however.

“I stressed last night that we’re still not out of the pandemic yet,” Wilder said. “So we would just ask the community to continue to be vigilant and still follow safe procedures like hand washing … as we continue to move forward.”

The update comes after School District 427 officials took input from parents Tuesday during the district’s School Board meeting.

According to the CDC’s updated guidance, schools are urged to work with local public health agencies to determine appropriate prevention strategies considering area levels of low, moderate, substantial or high community transmission and local vaccine coverage.

Many parents who spoke during the Sycamore school board meeting Tuesday asked district officials to not require masks for students, including Diana Hulst, of Sycamore, who cited concerns about district overreach of parental authority.

“As a parent of a child that has a seizure disorder, as a parent with a dairy allergy, I am accustomed to teaching my children to take precautions to guard their own healthcare,” Hulst said. “It is the parents’ right, it is the parents’ responsibility to guard that healthcare. There has not been enough data to show that the institution of masks in the school district is really a big factor in hospitalizations for children.”

Lisa Schau of Sycamore agreed.

“Let us as parents choose what’s best,” Schau said. “I’m not going to send my kids to school sick. … I think we’ve all kind of learned that.”

Lisa Feuerbach of Sycamore cited a recent large United Kingdom study that suggests children younger than 18 years old in England had a 1 in 50,000 chance of being admitted to intensive care and a 1 in 2 million chance of dying from COVID-19 during the first year of the pandemic. The study was led by researchers from University of York, University College London, Imperial College London and the Universities of Bristol and Liverpool and has been submitted to the UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination, the World Health Organization and the UK’s health department.

“All of us have a 1 in 500,000 chance of being struck by lightning – we all have a 1 in 200,000 chance of dying in a plane crash,” Feuerbach said. “But a child has a 1 in 2 million chance of dying of COVID-19. So that kind of helps to put things into perspective.”

Joy Carlson of Sycamore also cited the Nuremberg Code of Ethics during her public comments to school district officials.

“A mandate would take consent away from our kids and their parents,” Carlson said. “The degree of challenges to our children is greater than the risk of having COVID-19.”

According to data from the IDPH, reported cases in kids ages 5 to 11 averaged 1,056 new cases per week from June 2020 through June 2021. For kids ages 12 to 17, they averaged 1,587 new cases per week during the same time period, per state data.

Publicly available state hospitalization data for COVID-19 is not split up by age, and excludes pediatrics, pediatric ICUs and neo-natal ICUs. In the city of Chicago, there have been 598 total hospitalizations for kids newborn to 17 for the pandemic as of July 12. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children were 1.3% to 3.6% of total reported hospitalizations, and between 0.1% to 1.9% of all child COVID-19 cases resulted in hospitalization.

Deaths for the 20 and under population remain the lowest of any age group in the state, with a total of only 20 statewide for the entire pandemic as of July 13.

Genoa-Kingston School District 424

Longtime Genoa resident Ryan Kendzie said during the Tuesday Genoa-Kingston District 424 school board meeting that he and his family have been active in the community for years.

“I always envisioned my children enjoying the same small-town experience in this district as I did,” Kendzie said. “Unfortunately, last school year looked nothing like that.”

Kendzie said he wanted to see masks be optional in schools. He cited concerns about discrimination based on COVID-19 vaccination status.

“There’s no other disease or disorder or medical condition that is openly disclosed in the school setting,” Kendzie said. “So having children wear these masks as if they were a scarlet letter on their face to distinguish their medical status would be a very slippery slope for the school district, in my opinion.”

Genoa-Kingston School District 424 Superintendent Brent O’Daniell said that, per the school board, masks will be recommended for those not fully vaccinated but not required, citing the CDC and IDPH new guidance which do not explicitly mandate masks.

O’Daniell said the directive for the upcoming school year “is subject to change” pending county COVID-19 data.

“I think it is going in the right direction,” O’Daniell said.

O’Daniell said he personally believes there has been a philosophical shift when it comes to people staying home from work or school if they are sick. School in the fall for Genoa-Kingston will be fully in-person, but district officials know there exist certain medical circumstances in which remote learning remains a viable option.

“And we’re willing to work with parents on that,” O’Daniell said.

The CDC still recommends face masks and social distancing of at least 3 feet between students as “key prevention strategies,” according to the updated guidance. Local health officials also are using the 3-feet distance instead of 6 feet in defining close contacts when it comes to possible quarantining among unvaccinated children.

Amanda Christensen, regional superintendent for the DeKalb County Regional Office of Education, said local school superintendents have been meeting almost weekly since March 2020 to touch on COVID-19 related protocols – and Wednesday morning’s meeting with superintendents and local health officials was no exception. She said masking and physical distancing isn’t necessarily going away in a school setting for the upcoming school year.

“It’s difficult when guidance comes to us in July, with school opening in August and everyone having to adjust – as we have been doing for a year and a half now,” Christensen said.

Christensen said the guidance that was updated a week ago could still change, superintendents still need to remain flexible and communities need to understand that. She said regional school officials will continue to monitor county COVID-19 data.

“We just have to stay vigilant,” Christensen said.

COVID-19 vaccines not required for students

Illinois requires schoolchildren to be vaccinated against measles and other diseases, including polio, chickenpox and tetanus. The World Health Organization recommends a 95% measles, mumps and rubella vaccination rate and an 80% polio vaccination rate or higher to create herd immunity, or to stop the spread of contagious diseases within a population.

Students may be exempt from vaccinations after citing religious objections or for medical reasons according to IDPH and ISBE. Homeless students also are not required to provide proof of immunization in order to start attending school under the McKinney-Vento Act.

Historically, DeKalb County schools have had at least 75% of their student populations receive state required immunizations, with most schools having 90% or more of their students vaccinated, according to Illinois State Board of Education immunization data.

Lisa Gonzalez, public health administrator for the DeKalb County Health Department, said Wednesday that the COVID-19 vaccine is not required for school-aged children.

“All current COVID-19 vaccines that are available in the US [are] under FDA Emergency Use Authorization,” Gonzalez wrote in an email Wednesday. “There is not currently an approved vaccine for children under 12 years of age.”

Katie Finlon

Katie Finlon

Katie Finlon covers local government and breaking news for DeKalb County in Illinois. She has covered local government news for Shaw Media since 2018 and has had bylines in Daily Chronicle, Kendall County Record newspapers, Northwest Herald and in public radio over the years.