The Woodstock School District 200 board voted to mandate facial coverings indoors to start the upcoming academic year for everyone, regardless of COVID-19 vaccination status.
The 6-1 board decision was made as key COVID-19 caseload metrics monitored by McHenry County school systems and the McHenry County Department of Health worsened over the last week, edging closer to meeting the county’s definition of “substantial” community transmission of the illness.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention already classified McHenry County’s COVID-19 transmission risk as “substantial” as of Tuesday.
The sole vote against the motion to require masks for everybody was cast by school board member Jerry Miceli, who said he agrees masks should be worn in schools but disagreed with an aspect of the motion that gave district administration the ability to change its protocols when state and federal health and education officials issue updated guidance.
He wanted the school board to still have the responsibility to meet and approve changes to District 200 plans when health recommendations are tweaked.
Cary School District 26 is another public school system in McHenry County that opted to mandate masks to start the year, while many other area school districts have made masks optional regardless of vaccination status.
District 200′s decision was made during a special meeting rescheduled from last week, when the board convened just after the CDC reversed course and recommended facial coverings for everyone in schools regardless of vaccination status. It had said earlier last month that fully vaccinated people could go without masks.
The school board held off on making a decision in the wake of that update from federal health authorities so district lawyers could more closely analyze the potential pitfalls the district could encounter by not aligning completely with the guidance.
Superintendent Michael Moan said the lawyers found it was not worth the possible legal or financial risks to the district to allow mask-free environments in schools.
Plus, local health officials have indicated the number of student quarantines and temporary placements into remote learning that may result from a positive COVID-19 case being identified in classrooms of students without masks could be much higher than those with students in masks, Moan said.
“If we don’t mask the kids, then we could lose a whole classroom in one fell swoop” to quarantine orders, school board member Michelle Bidwell said.
“Our goal is to keep your kids in the classroom,” she said.
Dozens of District 200 residents attended both last week’s meeting and Tuesday’s, with the more recent of the two drawing comments that both supported making masks required for all in the district and making them optional.
“Having students in person is what needs to happen. And if we risk losing momentum that we had, it’s going to be very devastating. The best way to keep our students in person is to have them wear masks,” said Dara Turnball, a district employee who addressed the school board.
Resident Michael Savitz said it was disappointing that the CDC now suspects fully vaccinated people can transmit variants of COVID-19 at rates more on par to unvaccinated people, although the shots remain effective at preventing severe illness.
He urged masks to be made optional because he felt bringing them back at this point could signal a normalization of health mitigations like mask wearing and social distancing and that they could be here to stay unnecessarily.
“Masks are democratically dangerous,” Savitz said, adding the recommendations to wear them were made with a concerning “top-down approach.”
The district’s first day of school is Aug. 16.
Correction: An earlier version of this story reported an incorrect first day of school for District 200.