St. Charles School District won’t require masks for new school year

Plan for fall school year recommends students and staff members who are not fully vaccinated wear masks while inside

The St. Charles School District will not require students and staff who are fully vaccinated to wear masks during the upcoming school year.

Following the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Illinois Department of Public Health and Illinois State Board of Education, St. Charles School Board members voted unanimously to adopt that rule during Monday’s Special School Board meeting. The change is part of the district’s COVID-19 mitigation plan for the new school year, which starts Aug. 11.

However, the plan recommends that students and staff members who are not fully vaccinated should wear masks while inside. But masks will not be mandated.

“Under the current CDC/IDPH/ISBE guidelines, masking is no longer mandated,” the district’s plan notes.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is recommending all students, teachers and staff wear masks inside schools when classes resume to protect unvaccinated children from COVID-19 and reduce transmissions. Children age 11 and younger are not yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccines.

Masks will not be not required while students and staff members are outside when physical distancing can be maintained. All staff must wear a mask unless they provide proof of vaccination or are enrolled in the district’s screening testing program.

The district will be contracting with the University of Illinois SHIELD to conduct weekly screening tests. The test is a PCR saliva test and unvaccinated students will have an option to participate in screening testing.

But masks will still be required on school buses.

“The CDC order currently in effect for public transportation applies to all district vehicles, including school buses - masks are required,” the plan states.

However, buses will now be able to carry more than 50 passengers.

The plan also includes physical distancing rules. Students and staff will be spaced a minimum of three feet apart in classroom settings and students and staff will be spaced six feet apart while eating.

Regarding quarantining and isolation, isolation will still be necessary if a student or staff member has COVID-19 or presents symptoms of COVID-19, according to the plan. Quarantine will still be necessary if an unvaccinated student or staff member comes in close contact with an individual who has tested positive, the plan states.

However, if a student or staff member is enrolled in the district’s screening testing program, they may be exempt from the quarantine rules, pending new IDPH guidance.

The plan is subject to change.

“District 303 administration will add or remove mitigation strategies based on changes in rates of transmission in our community or schools,” it states.

Board members approved the new plan following public comments. Most in the crowd favored putting the decision on whether students should be masked in the hands of parents.

“Children need to have their faces exposed when reading, doing speech therapy and phonics work,” Ferson Creek Elementary School second grade teacher Nicole Cournaya told board members, in talking about how masks hinder learning. “Grades pre-K through 5 are the crucial years for reading and when a teacher can’t evaluate and observe a student speaking, that is detrimental to their learning, especially when learning to read and to speak. As a teacher, we also need to have our mouths and facial expressions exposed.”

She added that “it is also very hard to read social cues of students, to decide whether or not they are struggling with a situation.”

“Teachers constantly read non-verbal facial cues to tell if a student is uncomfortable,” Cournaya said. “A lot of students don’t speak up.”

Several people in the audience wore “no mask” T-shirts to send a message to board members.

However, a few people who spoke believe that masks are still necessary, including parent Barbara Diepenbrock. She would like to see the district mandate masks for elementary and middle school students until a vaccine is available for those students.

“We have a subset of citizens desperate for some sort of a political win at the expense of our children’s possible well-being backed by groups outside of the district facilitating anger and scientifically unbacked mentalities that masks obstruct a freedom and oxygen instead of germs,” she said, in addressing board members. ”We are begging for a compromise of half-a-year until all children have access and parents have the freedom to then choose to vaccinate, because a vaccine is finally made available to all of them.”

Diepenbrock spoke about her nephew, a “perfectly healthy” 12-year-old, who contracted COVID-19. His heart is now inflamed.

“We do not know the long term effects of COVID on children,” she said.

Eric Schelkopf

Eric Schelkopf covers St. Charles and writes entertainment stories for the Kane County Chronicle.