Streator Elementary will require masks, unless full vaccination is proven

About 30 parents attend meeting with 5 speaking out against requiring masks

The Streator Elementary District will require everyone in its buildings to wear a mask for the 2021-2022 school year, unless they prove they are fully-vaccinated from COVID-19.

With about 30 parents in attendance Tuesday and five parents telling the board they want masks to be optional, the school board – each wearing a mask – agreed unanimously to make mask wearing a requirement for students and staff, with one board member saying he wants masks to be required for fully-vaccinated students as well.

Board members also agreed a goal should be set with advisement from the La Salle County Health Department that if virus and vaccination rates reach a certain point, mask wearing may become optional or unnecessary.

The decision comes on the heels of the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation Monday all children over the age of 2 wear masks when returning to school this year, regardless of vaccination status.

Superintendent Lisa Parker will draft the mitigation plan and bring it back to the school board to finalize at a future meeting.

Board President Ed Levy opened the board’s discussion by saying the goal is to maintain in-person learning by preventing the spread of the virus. He said the school received guidelines to promote mask wearing, encourage vaccinations, install ventilation, keep students and staff at home when they are sick, social distance and contact tracing, among other strategies.

His recommendation was to put into place as many layers as the district can to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and to communicate them as clearly as possible throughout the district.

Christina Watchinski, Kerri Hoekstra, Tanya Jacobs, Jenny Salisbury and Molly Gallick, parents of district students, each spoke Tuesday in favor of making mask wearing optional for students. Their arguments touched on health and social issues with mask wearing, stating when it comes to health decisions parents should get the final say and not the school system.

Gallick said a petition collected 356 signatures from parents within the district in favor of making masks optional.

Salisbury said the risks outweigh the benefits of mask wearing, saying the majority of children recover from the virus and don’t pass it to adults. According to data from the Illinois Department of Public Health, 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, they averaged 1,587 new cases per week during the same time period, per state data.

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

Parker said the school district on average had 46 students in quarantine each week, but that includes the number of students who may have been potentially exposed to COVID-19. She said 1.8% of the student population had the virus confirmed. She said the virus rate decreased toward the end of the school year.

Watchinski said masks made it difficult for her kindergarten student to socialize at a time she said its critical to make friends. She also had concern for when masks get wet. The CDC says masks should be changed when wet. A wet mask is harder to breathe through, is less efficient at preventing respiratory droplets from reaching others, and allows for more respiratory droplets to escape.

Jacobs said masks increase irritability, lead to students touching their face more, and can cause headaches.

“There’s nothing more important than facial expressions to relate to each other,” Salisbury added to the discussion, calling for a return to normalcy in the school day.

Board Member James Parr said it is the board’s responsibility to keep everyone safe to the best of its ability.

“If one students is hospitalized, that wipes out every other concern,” Parr said.

Board members noted the school may be liable in litigation if a student gets sick and it did not put into place a mask wearing policy.

Holcomb said he believed the fairest policy would be to require all students to wear masks, regardless if they have been vaccinated. He had a concern for students possibly bullying each other for wearing or not wearing masks, and said it goes both ways if masks are made optional or if some get out of wearing a mask because they have been fully-vaccinated. He also didn’t want students to get vaccinated solely to avoid wearing masks.

Holcomb said vaccinated staff can make their own choices on masks.

The CDC recommended this month vaccinated students do not have to wear masks in classrooms.

Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said on MSNBC the CDC may have been trying to be a little more lenient, allowing people to make judgment calls “depending on the circumstances in your school and your community.”

Board members said they would like to get to a point where masks are no longer needed.

Parr said it’s important the school district take guidance from the county health department and Illinois Department of Public Health whenever making changes to its policy.

“We aren’t the experts,” he said.

To watch the meeting in full, go to:

Derek Barichello

Derek is a Streator High and University of Illinois graduate. He worked at the Albany-Herald in Albany, Ga., and for Sauk Valley Media in Sterling, before returning to his hometown paper. He's now news editor for both the NewsTribune and The Times.