Crystal Lake-based Community High School District 155 will make masks optional for the upcoming school year, the school board and district officials confirmed at a meeting Wednesday night.
This week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended all teachers, staff, students and visitors in schools wear face masks indoors regardless of their vaccination status. This recommendation was quickly adopted by the Illinois Department of Public Health. Earlier in July, the CDC had said masks should be worn by those who are not vaccinated.
District 155 Superintendent Steve Olson noted that guidance on reopening schools from state and federal officials continues to shift and change quickly.
But right now, “based on current health data,” the district has decided to start the 2021-22 school year with a mask-optional approach for staff and students, except on school buses where they’re required, Olson said.
Looking at the data he compiled from the Illinois Department of Public Health, Olson said Wednesday that McHenry County has the fourth highest rate of fully vaccinated people in the state. About 84.78% of those 65 and older in the county have been fully vaccinated, he said.
That statistics is lower for the population overall. Nearly 50% of the total population in McHenry County has been fully vaccinated, state data shows.
“That’s a pretty good place, I believe, for us as a county,” Olson said.
He also mentioned that District 155 will have layered prevention strategies for students, such as physical distancing, screen testing and improved ventilation.
Families in the audience were visibly relieved that masks will not be required in school this year, though Olson cautioned that these decisions are subject to change based upon community spread, changing public health conditions and updates from the CDC, McHenry County Department of Health and Illinois State Board of Education.
At this point, the CDC, ISBE and local and state health departments have not mandated that schools require masks.
Olson said if they do, the district will be limited in what it can do to push back against a state or federal mask mandate.
“We can fight the good fight, … but the reality is if the need arises, and we’re getting guidance from a variety of sources, as you can see, we can’t just be dismissive of that,” Olson said. “We’re a governmental agency.”
McHenry County had enough spread of COVID-19 to trigger the universal indoor mask-wearing advice set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Wednesday.
None of the people who spoke during the public comment period at Wednesday‘s meeting were in favor of making face coverings required in schools.
One student, a rising junior at Cary-Grove High School, detailed how she wore a mask while in hybrid learning, calling it a “less than pleasant” experience.
“They’re just uncomfortable, and even sitting calmly in class can be difficult,” she said, adding that it is also harder for her to hear teachers and students with face coverings on. “These may sound like minor inconveniences on their own, but they are a package of inconveniences that accompany each other all day, every day when I have the mask [on].”
Another person during public comment, Laura Smith, said the mask debate is about “freedom and our right to choose.”
“We’re fighting for our children to be able to breathe,” she said. “What I implore you to do is to stand up, because you know, you really innately know what’s right for these kids, and these kids can’t speak for themselves.”
Other speakers also mentioned concerns about the health effects of children wearing masks. In an FAQ on the CDC website, the agency notes that carbon dioxide levels inhaled by mask wearers do not rise when wearing a mask. As reported by the Associated Press, social media posts claiming masks make wearers sick have been widely debunked.
Public commenters were animated, though Wednesday’s meeting was calmer than the one on July 15, when school board President Jason Blake had to ask for a brief recess during public comment due to “public disruption,” according to meeting minutes.
During the July 15 meeting, one member of the public, who falsely implied masks aren’t effective against the virus, asked the board to “please review the science” and make it so masks aren’t required.
The woman ended up going over the allotted time for her public comment, even after Blake asked her multiple times to wrap up her remarks.
“I have to just finish this,” the woman said in a recording of the meeting posted on the school district’s YouTube page. “Will you guys let me finish?” she asked as meeting attendees cheered for her.
Things came to a head when Blake said, “This is my board room.”
“You had your time, please sit down,” he told the woman.
“It’s our board room,” she shouted back in response, as some members of the crowd also started yelling. “We pay your salary.”
School board members in Illinois serve without pay.
After coming back from the break, Blake said the board does try to respect people when they’re addressing the board at meetings. He said the purpose of calling a recess was not because board members didn’t want to listen, but because “we wanted to get control back.”
During Wednesday’s meeting this past week, Blake said he and the superintendent have talked about having a town hall where they can converse with families and hear their concerns.
“Then we can have more of an open forum,” Blake said.