DeKALB – Less than a month into her new role leading the county’s largest school district, Minerva Garcia-Sanchez and the DeKalb school board have a significant decision to make: Will DeKalb District 428 require masks when school returns in a few weeks?
The former chief of schools for Chicago Public School’s Pilsen and Little Village indicated earlier this week she’s not opposed to keeping masks on, a juxtaposition to the decisions made by neighboring school districts in Sycamore and Genoa earlier this month.
“Being a leader in education means that you have to be a team player, you have to collaborate and believe in supporting the child as a whole and their best interest at heart,” Garcia-Sanchez said.
Chicago Public Schools, Garcia-Sanchez’s former stomping grounds for nearly three decades, announced earlier this week masks will be required for all, regardless of vaccine status, when students return in August.
A year and a half into the coronavirus pandemic and facing another school year amid the chaos, Garcia-Sanchez’s mask mindset already aligns with DeKalb school board president Sarah Moses, who said Friday “not requiring students to wear a mask would be irresponsible.”
“Children are the most valuable part of society, and we have to keep them safe,” Moses said.
In the past nearly 500 days, DeKalb schools have adopted a more stringent COVID-19 policy than other districts and was the last in the county to return to a fully in-person learning model in late 2020.
As the impending school year looms just weeks away, school districts in DeKalb County and beyond are turning to local vaccination rates to inform mask-wearing policies at the direction of new guidance from the the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The new guidance urges local districts to instead adopt policies relative to vaccination and COVID-19 case positivity rates to inform protocols, instead of issuing a mask mandate for all schools nationwide.
On Monday, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement with a more pointed ask: That all schools require masks for everyone regardless of vaccination status until more children, namely those under 12 not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, can get inoculated.
Sycamore and Genoa-Kingston school districts plan to make mask-wearing optional for students and staff. 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.
“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.
From student to superintendent
Minerva Garcia-Sanchez didn’t want to be a teacher; she wanted to be a child advocacy lawyer.
“I wanted to change the world through policy, making a difference in children’s lives,” she said.
Her first job in high school was at Quaker Oats, where she “learned about belonging, human relations and development.”
She attended Loyola University of Chicago, where she graduated in 1991 with a Bachelor of Science with majors in communication and media studies and psychology. She received her Master of Education from Chicago State University in 2003 and her Doctor of Education from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2021.
Through a job with instructional technology, bringing local area networks into schools, Garcia-Sanchez was introduced to Eli Whitney Elementary School, where she had her first teaching job.
“It was there that I met a young boy named Daniel,” she said. “He was so smart, reading at a 12th-grade reading level. But he was bored and ran in the wrong crowds. He taught me how important it was to be a teacher and a leader. That’s why I became an assistant principal and later a principal.”
She helped found Irene C. Hernandez Middle School in Chicago, which she “modeled after suburban schools using a true middle school model.”
“The school focuses on technology, science and mathematics, as well as building traditions,” she said. “I believe that middle school positively changed the community.”
She later helped found a high school and in 2015, she began serving as Pilsen/Little Village chief of schools. She worked for Chicago Public Schools for 27 years.
In January, the DeKalb School District 428 board voted unanimously, 7-0, to approve Garcia-Sanchez as the new superintendent. Garcia-Sanchez began her three-year term July 1.
According to her contract, Garcia-Sanchez will earn $210,000 annually. It is able to be renewed after Jan. 1, 2024. She will also receive a $2,500 automobile allowance.
She is believed to be the first woman, district officials said, to be superintendent of the district and is at least the second minority superintendent after Brian Ali in the early 2000s.
Moses said “the entire board is excited about her leadership.”
“We interviewed many candidates and she immediately rose to the top,” she said. “People that know her, not only her recommendations, raved about her. What’s really remarkable about her is that she’s brilliant, has a clear vision for our school district, is extremely student-centered and is a very hard worker.”
Moses said she was “impressed and grateful” that Garcia-Sanchez volunteered her time to learn about the school district and develop goals and plans before starting the position in July.
“When she started the job, she was able to hit the ground running,” Moses said. “It shows that she truly is a servant leader.”
Meet and greet
To introduce herself to the community, Garcia-Sanchez held free ice cream social events throughout cities and towns of the school district in July.
At an ice cream social at Huntley Middle School on Wednesday, mom Guadalupe Parra said that she “already likes” the new superintendent, who’s bilingual.
“I don’t know her yet, but it means a lot that she came to meet us,” Parra said. “I also like that she speaks Spanish. I feel like maybe she’ll understand us a little better.”
Jacqueline Nieves moved to DeKalb a year ago and attended Wednesday’s ice cream social to see her son’s new middle school and meet the administration in attendance.
“I wanted to meet the new superintendent,” Nieves said. “It’s nice to see her outside of the school setting, too, to get to know her.”
Garcia-Sanchez said the ice cream socials were not just for popsicles.
“It’s an opportunity to meet parents, students and the community,” she said. “When I was younger, the principals of my elementary school were not the kind to sit in offices. They knew our names and made it a point to get to know our families. I want people to know that I am here, they can ask me questions and I will be very responsive.”
Garcia-Sanchez said what she looks forward to the most about her leadership of the DeKalb School District is “building relationships and educating.”
“Education is finding the gaps and the growth areas, and bridging that gap and continuing to grow,” she said. “School is more than reading and writing. The experiences are really important for development.”
After almost a month in her new leadership role, Garcia-Sanchez also said she’s looking forward to the start of the new school year.
“I’m ready for school, and I want to ring the bell for school to start,” she said. “On the first day of school, everyone has something new, whether it’s a new backpack, shirt, shoes or hair barrette. It has the same feeling of taking your favorite shirt out of the laundry, with Downy and fabric softener, when it’s warm and smells good. For me, that’s what the first day of school is like.”