Mask up in DeKalb schools: DeKalb school board says masks will be required for all when school returns

‘It’s better to be preventative than wishing we did something more. Instead of saying ‘We should have done this or that,’ I’d rather go all in,’ said DeKalb Superintendent Minerva Garcia-Sanchez

DeKALB – When the new school year begins Aug. 18, everyone in DeKalb District 428 schools, regardless of age or vaccination status, students or teachers, will be required to wear face masks.

The decision came after a Tuesday vote by the DeKalb School Board.

The vote for a mask mandate was one member shy of unanimous, with school board member Jeromy Olson the only one to vote no.

In an interview after the school board meeting, Superintendent Minerva Garcia-Sanchez said she “always has the best interest of the children at heart, and what keeps them healthy and safe is where I’m going to go and what I’m for.”

She then quoted a Spanish saying.

“It is better to be proactive than to lament,” Garcia-Sanchez said. “It’s better to be as tight and restrictive as possible and begin to peel back things as the situation gets better. It’s better to be preventative than wishing we did something more, instead of saying, ‘We should have done this or that.’ I’d rather go all in.”

The superintendents of Sycamore School District 427 and Genoa-Kingston School District both previously have stated their school districts will not require students or staff to wear face masks, although the two school board decisions came before changing guidance at the local, state and federal levels.

As of last week, the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that masks be worn indoors for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to schools, regardless of vaccination status, a reversal of previous guidance which suggested school districts look to local case, vaccination and hospitalization data to inform decisions. According to guidance published earlier this week, the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Illinois State Board of Education “endorse the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s] recommendation that all teachers, staff, students and visitors to K-12 schools wear a mask while indoors, regardless of vaccination status.”

The COVID-19 vaccine is not yet available to those younger than 12.

When asked whether their districts expect to change the optional mask protocols for the coming year because the changing guidance, Sycamore and Genoa-Kingston superintendents said the decisions were unclear because their school boards will need to meet again.

Three DeKalb District 428 parents came to speak at the meeting, asking the school board not to impose a mask mandate, a move away from the most recent DeKalb school board meeting when all parents who spoke spoke in favor of masks.

Andy and Renee Olsen, whose son is a sophomore at DeKalb High School, spoke out against a mask mandate at the meeting.

“I came to speak on behalf of the kids, so they know one person is on their side,” Renee Olson said. “I spoke on the side of logic, rather than fear. Having a vaccine changes everything this year. I feel like the school board is more concerned with the legal liability than our kids.”

Lilia Robles, whose son is in the fifth grade, spoke of the “irreversible psychological damage” mask-wearing has on children.

“The percentage of infection for young people is minimal,” she said. “Wearing masks six or eight hours a day, social distancing ... the removal of sports, temperature checks and testing have created an epidemic of anxiety, depression and fear for our children. It must stop. None of this is necessary.”

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 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 population ages 20 and younger remain the lowest of any age group in the state, with a total of 20 statewide for the pandemic as of July 13.

School Board President Sarah Moses, who voted in favor of a mask requirement, said that “with only a 40% vaccination rate in DeKalb County, we’re going to see significant increases in COVID cases and we can anticipate that stricter measures would be happening because of that.”

Garcia-Sanchez also said the mask mandate “is a fluid decision.”

“Today we have this decision, but after the first two weeks of school, if we are ultra careful, wear masks, and positive test numbers and transmission rates are down, the decision can be changed and relaxed,” she said. “I want people to know that we know that not everybody is in agreement with what we’re doing, but we’re asking for folks to allow for empathy and grace around us being able to take care of those that are put into our care. There are 6,600 children plus the adults that work with them, and I take that very seriously. We, the board and I as the superintendent, take that very seriously.”

The next school board meeting will be held 7 p.m. Aug. 17 in the board room at The Education Center, 901 S. Fourth St. in DeKalb.

Katrina Milton

Katrina J.E. Milton

Award-winning reporter and photographer for Shaw Media publications, including The Daily Chronicle and The MidWeek newspapers in DeKalb County, Illinois, since 2012.