Wearing masks will be optional for students and staff at McHenry Elementary School District 15 to start the school year, regardless of COVID-19 vaccination status, and the announcement by Superintendent Josh Reitz at a Wednesday school board meeting was met with applause by the dozens in the audience.
Masks will still be required for everyone while on buses, whether they’re vaccinated or not, and Reitz said the district will recommend, though not require, the use of masks for unvaccinated individuals elsewhere.
No public comments ahead of Reitz’s announcement were in support of having unvaccinated students and staff members wear masks indoors, as has been recommended but not required by state and federal public health and education officials.
“We will recommend mask usage when appropriate, and require it when it is mandated,” Reitz said.
The district wanted to issue its plans as quickly as possible after state and federal health agencies last week released their guidance for schools, because classes at Landmark Elementary School start next week. The school operates on a yearround schedule with a shorter summer vacation and longer breaks at other points in the year.
Masks will not be needed by anyone outdoors.
The plans are subject to change, depending on the COVID-19 caseload and vaccination progress in the community, Reitz said.
“We will continue to promote, but of course not require, vaccinations for eligible populations,” Reitz said.
The district has had a greater sense of urgency than other school systems in the area because one of its schools, Landmark Elementary, starts classes next weeks since it is on a year-round academic schedule with longer breaks during the school year and a short summer break.
“It’s possible we were the most anxious of all districts as we have a school that begins one week from today,” Reitz said Wednesday. “So we had an urge to move quickly because we knew Landmark School in particular needed decisions from us.”
The district is pursuing the creation of a COVID-19 screening and testing program for students that families could choose to enroll their students in, but it will not be required.
“It could be seen as yet another layered prevention strategy that families can choose if they would like to employ,” Reitz said.
Cafeterias and lunch periods in the district are also expected to operate normally, and classrooms will return to their pre-pandemic capacities, Reitz said.
Remote learning will be made available to students who are placed into quarantine due to COVID-19 safety protocols and are unable to attend school in person. The district is prioritizing the delivery of in-person education for all students, and full school days will be the schedule to start the year with pre-pandemic starting and dismissal times.
Alexandria Santiago, a resident with three school-aged children, was among the handful of parents who spoke to the board urging masks to be optional for the unvaccinated as well as vaccinated, and also was against testing student saliva for the virus, expressing concerns with not knowing where the samples might be sent or how they could be used after they’re examined.
“There is not one government agency or institution that has the power to take away my god-given right ... to choose what is best for my family,” Santiago said.
McHenry Mayor Wayne Jett, who was in attendance at the meeting, said he was pleased with the district’s plan.
“This board stands behind this important plan that was presented for the return to school this year,” school board President Chad Mihevc said.