Sycamore, Genoa-Kingston districts will comply with school mask mandate, say superintendents

Local school leaders, teachers weigh in on Pritzker’s mandate to require masks indoors for all Illinois public schools regardless of vaccination status

Sycamore and Genoa-Kingston superintendents confirmed Wednesday the districts, which previously approved optional masking, will now comply with Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker’s new mandate requiring masks indoors in public schools statewide regardless of vaccination status.

Sycamore Superintendent Steve Wilder said the governor’s announcement changes things, since it’s a mandate not a recommendation.

“We will follow the mandate effective immediately,” Wilder said. “This is kind of breaking news, so we’re preparing communications that will go out to our staff and community. We will comply with the mask mandate and implement that.”

Genoa-Kingston Superintendent Brent O’Daniell said the district will also follow the governor’s mandate. O’Daniell said the school board will meet Tuesday, Aug. 10 to address the mandate and “make changes and updates” to the back-to-school plan. Sycamore school board also meets Tuesday.

“Starting tomorrow, everyone has to be masked up in our school district,” O’Daniell said. “Through this all, we’ve had to have a lot of flexibility. You have to roll with the punches with things changing all the time. I’ve been in constant contact with our board president and district attorney. After the board meeting next Tuesday, hopefully we will put a statement and a plan out that’s a little more definitive.”

Pritzker’s mask mandate comes as the COVID-19 virus surges in parts of the country and vaccination rates stagnate. DeKalb County last week was designated by the CDC as having a “substantial” risk for community transmission spurred by the highly contagious Delta variant of COVID-19. The CDC reported as of July 31, Delta accounts for the majority, more than 83%, of new U.S. virus cases. The DeKalb County Health Department last week also issued new guidance urging everyone to return to universal indoor masking, with fewer than 40% of the county’s eligible population not fully vaccinated as cases rise again.

Pritzker’s announcement Thursday was less than 24 hours after DeKalb District 428 school board approved a near-unanimous measure to require masks in district buildings, the largest district in the county to do so prior to the mandate. And two weeks before students are set to return to classrooms in DeKalb County schools for the coming school year.

In an interview after Tuesday’s school board meeting, DeKalb 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.”

“Masking up is absolutely the right step, because we always want to take care of our most vulnerable, whether they’re vaccinated or not,” she said.

Pritzker’s mandate impacts public preschool through Grade 12 and day cares, effective immediately.

The mask mandate brings the state in line with U.S. Centers for Disease Prevention and Control guidance that says teachers and students older than the age of 2 need to wear a mask indoors, regardless of vaccination status.

“I had hoped that a state mask requirement in schools wouldn’t be necessary, but it is,” Pritzker said, adding that “far too few” schools had elected to follow CDC guidance.

IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said that last month, nearly 15% of COVID-19 cases were in young children, up from less than 5% in January, and in July, 7.8% of hospitalizations were in people younger than 20 years old.

Prior to the mandate and after the Sycamore school board had approved an optional masking policy -- face coverings strongly encouraged for those who aren’t vaccinated and required for buses -- Wilder said the district had not conducted any formal polling to assess how many Spartan families wished to continue masking or didn’t. A Sycamore school board meeting on July 13 saw a handful of parents speak prior to the board vote, all in favor of optional masks.

Districts not tracking vaccine data

Neither Sycamore, Genoa-Kingston or DeKalb districts are requiring students or employees to divulge or share their COVID-19 vaccinations status, and said they are not aware of how many in their districts are fully vaccinated, said Garcia-Sanchez, Wilder and O’Daniell.

A hyper-local set of vaccine data related to specific districts is also not available on the Illinois Department of Public Health’s public website.

“We do not have that data,” Wilder said on July 27. “We’ve not been tracking that within the school district. We didn’t have any plans to track that. So I don’t have those numbers.”

Wilder, O’Daniell and Minerva Garcia-Sanchez said they did not do any formal polling of district families to assess mask preference prior to their earlier school board votes.

A Daily Chronicle investigation found 52% of those living within the 60178 zip code, which includes Sycamore, are fully vaccinated as of July 18. That number was 39% for the DeKalb zip code and 45% for Genoa-Kingston as of July 18. The state does not have vaccination rates broken down by school district, but does track COVID-19 case outbreaks by county and age group.

Sycamore and Genoa-Kingston superintendents have said their districts include about half of the student population under 12. The COVID-19 vaccine is not yet eligible for those under 12.

Teacher reactions

Shawn LaPlante, eighth grade algebra and social studies teacher at Huntley Middle School and co-president of the DeKalb Classroom Teachers Association, said that he was “not surprised at all” when he heard of the governor’s mask mandate.

“I saw the writing on the wall over the past few weeks,” he said. “I’m excited to get back into the classroom in person with the students, but there are obvious concerns for safety. We want to make sure we’re protecting everyone in the community, including teachers, support staff, faculty, the students and everyone’s families at home.”

“There’s been very little push back from students. They’re pretty good about following the rules. Even at the elementary level, they’re pretty good about wearing masks. I think it’s because they all know it’s a preventative measure.”

—  Shawn LaPlante, eight grade algebra and social studies teacher at Huntley Middle School and co-president of the DeKalb Classroom Teachers Association

LaPlante said that he “understands why a mask mandate was made,” but questions some of the logistics, including how students can eat lunch without masks and how classes like speech therapy can be held.

“There are so many questions left to be answered,” he said. “When students take off their masks, does that make all the hours of mask-wearing pointless? We want to create a safe environment and stay within the health guidelines, but in practicality, that’s difficult to do in a classroom setting.”

In an email, Sarah Jennings, a Spanish teacher at DeKalb High School and a mother of students in the Sycamore school district, said that she supports the governor’s mask mandate.

“As a teacher in DeKalb, I’m grateful that our school board voted last night to require them regardless of vaccination status,” Jennings wrote. “As a parent of students in Sycamore, I’m grateful that this takes the pressure off the school district to make the decision. Until more people, including those under 12, get vaccinated and we get the Delta variant under control, we should all mask up.”

Compliance and enforcement

Wilder said in his experience last school year, compliance with mask-wearing wasn’t an issue with students.

“Last year we really saw compliance across the board at all grade levels and all schools,” Wilder said. “I think students and staff both recognized the need for masks last year. I think one of the challenges this year is circumstances have changed, and for a large portion of the summer dating back to the spring, the local data was pretty good. The Delta variant has throw a curveball into our planning and the timing is not great coming right before the beginning of the school year.”

O’Daniell said that returning to mask-wearing after months of more lax rules “will be an adjustment period no doubt, and we’ll work with everyone.”

“Our young children are very compliant and want to do what’s right, so there’s not much of an issue with compliance at the younger grade levels,” he said. “When we ask older kids to wear masks properly, sometimes there’s some eye-rolling and talking back. I think it’s that age, though. Whether it’s the dress code or being late to school or mask-wearing, teenagers test us a little and push back a bit.”

LaPlante said that he was really impressed with students’ mask-wearing compliance last year.

“Occasionally, masks slip down and I ask them to fix it,” he said. “There’s been very little push back from students. They’re pretty good about following the rules. Even at the elementary level, they’re pretty good about wearing masks. I think it’s because they all know it’s a preventative measure. Although it’s a little bit of a hassle, it’s there to protect them and others.”