DeKALB – New DeKalb School District Superintendent Minerva Garcia-Sanchez said she’s in support of students wearing masks in the classroom this fall, though the school board hasn’t yet made a final decision on the matter.
“Only until people are 100% vaccinated and we’re not worried about variants would I say that masks should be 100% optional,” Garcia-Sanchez said in an interview following the school board meeting Tuesday
“The percentage rate of people vaccinated is on the low side and there is a high percentage of students who are not vaccinated or cannot be vaccinated due to their age,” she continued. “Parents entrust me and the school board to do what’s in the best interest of the students, and we must make sure everyone stays healthy and safe. We have to be good stewards of those entrusted to us.”
According to Illinois Department of Public Health data, as of Tuesday, 91,433 total vaccine doses have been administered to DeKalb County residents,and 44,562 residents, or 42.79% of the county’s population of 104,143, have been fully vaccinated. The COVID-19 vaccine is not yet available to anyone under 12. Pifzer-BioNTech, the only manufacturer currently approved to offer the vaccine to those as young as 12, announced in May it expected to ask for authorization to begin administering the vaccine to younger children in September, but the two-dose vaccine is still weeks away, and a definitive timeline for approval remains yet to be seen.
School districts locally are now turning to local vaccination rates to inform mask-wearing policies as classes begin in less than a month, at the direction of new guidance from the the U.S Centers for Disease Control. The DeKalb School Board will bring back the topic during its Aug. 3 meeting as an action item, with an expected vote on whether the district will require everyone to wear masks, or make the guidance optional based on vaccination status, similar to what neighboring districts have done.
Garcia-Sanchez said that decisions made during the pandemic “can be changed,” and that “something approved and decided upon now can be brought back and changed as factors change.”
Whether or not students should wear masks while in school was the main topic of discussion during Tuesday evening’s DeKalb School Board meeting.
Three parents attended the meeting to speak in favor of requiring masks in schools.
Linh Nguyen and husband Ralph Wheeler read a statement. Nguyen and Wheeler, who both hold doctorates and teach chemistry at Northern Illinois University, urged the district to enact a mask policy for students.
“When it comes to community health, in public school, where my children will go to and other parents’ children also go to, then we as a community, we need to decide what is best for everyone,” Nguyen, who’s also announced an intent to run for DeKalb County Clerk and Recorder, said.
“Our children wear masks at daycare, they don’t have a problem with it, they’re not making a political statement,” Wheeler said. “As parents, our concern is about public health. The bottom line is that we’re parents, we’re not going to sit here and let misinformation put our children at risk. A mask mandate is not taking freedom away. … It keeps them safe. And when our 5-year-old transitions to kindergarten in the fall, we want him in kindergarten, not at home learning online and we want him to be safe when he’s there. We’re asking the school board to require masks to be worn by students in public schools.”
Parent Tim Horsley also said that he is “concerned about children being safe in school.”
“Mask-wearing is the single easiest thing we can do to protect the unvaccinated,” he said. “It would be a very simple thing to do to take care of all our children until we can all be vaccinated and we’re on the other side of this.”
Neighboring school districts of Sycamore and Genoa-Kingston, on the other hand, plan to make mask-wearing optional for students and staff, as opted by each district’s respective school boards.
On July 9, 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 Superintendent Garcia-Sanchez said local school district officials have been discussing mask-wearing and that “there is a large push for full mask-wearing for children under the age of 12 … and for children in grades six through twelve unless they are fully vaccinated and have proof that they are vaccinated, but the recommendation is that they should still wear masks for their safety and the safety of others.”
“The one requirement that I have heard that is a must is that students riding the bus to and from school and during events would be required to wear a mask,” she said, echoing guidance initiated by the CDC which stipulates masks on school buses.
“Concerns, questions, they are trying to figure out is do we collect proof of vaccination,” Garcia-Sanchez said. “And how do we go about doing that, and of course, testing students: how often, who would be tested and we would need parental consent for any kind of testing.”
Although the school board will vote during their next meeting about whether students will be required to wear masks in DeKalb School District schools, Garcia-Sanchez spoke to ease the minds of concerned parents:
“Trust us to take care of your kids,” she said. “They’re the reason that we’re in business. We want to make sure they’re coming to school and that they’re well enough to be in school learning. We miss them, we miss our staff. … As we move forward and things may be changing, it doesn’t mean that we can’t pivot and make adjustments depending on how well our town is doing. Vaccination rates and positivity rates change. We’re going to make the best decision with your help...and then this board will make a decision about what that will look like going forward.”