A growing number people no longer need to wear a mask when venturing out in Illinois.
But as students return to school this fall, many may still be required to wear masks. Parents are rallying to change that, protesting and creating Facebook groups to get rid of the mask mandate.
The Illinois State Board of Education still is working on guidance for the next school year and is working to address the concerns of educators and parents as quickly as they can, Illinois Superintendent of Education Carmen Ayala said during a meeting Wednesday.
Currently, Illinois is following the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommended in May that “schools continue to use the current COVID-19 prevention strategies,” which includes masks for the unvaccinated.
COVID-19 vaccines are available only to those 12 and older under emergency-use authorization from the federal Food and Drug Administration. The vaccines continue to undergo large scale trials before receiving full approval from the FDA.
“The state of Illinois has put undo harm and pressure on our children,” Marsha McClary, a parent in Barrington Community Unit School District 220, told the Illinois State Board of Education during its meeting Wednesday.
McClary and other parents told the board that students should not be forced to wear masks in school this coming fall as COVID-19 rates plummet as more Illinoisans become fully vaccinated.
McClary said she is a member of an Illinois parents union, with more than 7,000 members on Facebook, that talks about how the state has pressured students during the past school year.
Another Facebook rallying point – Parents Rally for Free Breathing – was created by Batavia resident Jessica Selvik, who said does not want her young children wearing masks when they go back to school in August.
Selvik estimated that about 50 people gathered outside Kane County Health Department as part of her June 10 event to protest against the ongoing requirement that unvaccinated children continue to wear masks.
A small group with signs also gathered that day outside a McHenry County Department of Health office, a department spokeswoman said.
“There are a lot of parents in Illinois who want to organize, but don’t know where to go,” Selvik said. “We’re trapped in a cycle of not knowing where to get the answers, and we also wanted to connect with each other. I wanted to make sure other parents who feel isolated to know they’re not alone in wanting their kids to have a normal school year.”
A quarter of a million cases have been identified among those younger than age 20 in Illinois, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. Of those, 20 have died.
Dr. Sandhya Karna, a pediatrician with Northwestern Medicine McHenry Hospital, said it’s been about four months since she has seen a pediatric COVID-19 case among her patients.
She said risk remains for kids, but protections school children have learned over the last year like washing their hands and staying away from others when they feel sick will also help.
“With adults being vaccinated, that’s obviously helping with the decline (in cases) among the adult population,” Karna said. “I would hope that would mean a decline in the child population as well.”
Throughout the pandemic, age has generally been a key risk factor, with risk increasing as age increases. However, the new delta variant of COVID-19 has Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker concerned for children under age 12 who can’t get vaccinated.
“The delta variant seems to have been predominant among people who are unvaccinated,” Pritzker said Thursday. “Twenty-five percent of the (new) cases I’ve now read are coming from that age group.”
While Pritzker is concerned about some students not being able to take the vaccine, Shannon Adcock of Naperville is concerned about vaccines being forced on to students.
Adcock said ISBE should issue guidance on how to proceed with the upcoming school year and not mandates. Adcock is also the director of Awake Illinois, “a social welfare organization protecting our children, our liberties and our American way of life,” according to its website.
Adcock and McClary were two of several Chicago-area parents asking ISBE Wednesday to not require masks in the upcoming school year. Others said masks made it hard for children to concentrate in the classroom and made it hard for students to breath while being worn for long periods of time.
“If it were that hard (to breath), they wouldn’t be able to do it,” Karna said. “It is uncomfortable to breathe. I just think there’s a lot more social cues that we’re missing out on because the masks are covering it up.”
Karna said she can see how masks might make breathing difficult for kids playing a sport, but that it shouldn’t be a problem when they are sitting in class. She said the social impacts of the masks, such as the lack of facial expressions, is the greater impact.
Going forward, she said it will be hard to tell how safe a mostly vaccinated adult population makes children in schools and whether cases would increase if students returned to schools with fewer restrictions, especially because many kids can’t be vaccinated.
Kane County Chronicle editor Aimee Barrows contributed to this report.