Masks optional at Marengo Union Elementary School District 165 this fall

Masks could return if cases rise, superintendent says

After being one of the few public schools to remain in person for the entire 2020-21 academic year, Marengo Union Elementary School District 165 Superintendent Lea Damisch is ready to take another step toward bringing some normalcy back to school.

Masks will not be required in kindergarten through eighth grade for the upcoming school year, but all precautions taken last year to protect against the spread of the coronavirus will remain in place, Damisch told the district’s school board Tuesday evening.

“We know that some parents will not be pleased that masks are optional,” Damisch said.

Damisch focused on the choices of individual parents and students, noting that many students and teachers don’t have to wear masks in other settings of their life and she doesn’t want to treat students differently regarding masks just because they’re in school.

However, Damisch said making masks optional for the beginning of the school year doesn’t mean the school will not be paying attention to developments on the virus and guidance.

“I think it’s really important that the message is really clear to our parents that even though we start out mask optional, if all of the sudden we see an uptick, masks are going back on. That’s just the way it has to be,” she said.

At Tuesday’s board meeting, a handful of parents attended to listen, but none spoke, a stark contrast to some other area school districts where school board meetings have become fraught affairs.

Damisch said she thinks there is strong trust between the community and the school district on decisions like this. While citing bullying concerns as one reason she wants to make masks optional for students, she said students and parents were very compliant with all guidelines last year and she expects this year will go smoothly too.

One thing Damisch also wanted to stress was that the district will not ask for someone’s vaccination status.

“The district will not be tracking vaccines for staff or students,” she said. “The only time we’d ask a parent if a child is vaccinated is if they’re a close contact [for contact tracing purposes].”

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, vaccinated students will not have to quarantine even if they are identified as a closed contact, meaning they were within a certain distance of an infected individual for at least 15 minutes.

The district also plans to make the University of Illinois SHIELD testing available to students if they want. The SHIELD saliva test allows people getting tested to spit in a small tube rather than receive a nasal swab. The test was used by the university’s three campuses last academic year and has since been expanded to other community organizations around the state.

“The parents would opt-in for weekly screenings of COVID,” Damisch said. “What it does is allows kids to come out of quarantine faster, but it also allows us to catch cases of the asymptomatic kids.”

Damisch said the district successfully prevented the virus from spreading in school last year and believes they will be successful again this year, even without masks. She also said recent guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics recommending masking in schools likely will not change the district’s plans.

Even as cases of the coronavirus become more prevalent among younger, unvaccinated Americans, Damisch said the virus has not had as severe of an impact on younger people, which makes her more comfortable with her decision to make masks optional.

Kids ages 5 to 11 averaged 1,056 new cases per week from June 2020 through June 2021 and kids ages 12 to 17, they averaged 1,587 new cases per week during the same time period, according to data from the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Children accounted for 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, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, which looked at data across 23 states and New York City.

Deaths for the 20 and younger 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.

District 165 students will return to school Aug. 23.