Johnsburg School District 12 Board member Jim Barrett made a lengthy speech Tuesday explaining that he, like most of the parents who spoke during public comments, opposes the mask mandate for everyone in schools put in place earlier this month by Gov. JB Pritzker.
But Barrett and his fellow board members also said their hands were tied by the governor’s executive order and are unwilling to take legal and financial risks to challenge it or explicitly set a differing policy on face coverings.
The possibility that state officials could strip District 12 of its accreditation if it did not follow Pritzker’s mask requirement is too great to not comply with the order, Barrett said, even though he personally believes the government response to COVID-19 has been overblown in schools.
He cited the fact that more than half of the deaths in McHenry County because of COVID-19 have been tied to long-term care facilities and that the fatality rate in the county is less than 1% of the overall confirmed cases.
“I find it mind-boggling what is being forced down our throats based on 1%. Utterly mind-boggling,” Barrett said. “But that is citizen Jim. I stand up here as a school board member. ... Sometimes you must go against your own personal interests to remain an unbiased opinion and not risk financial harm with taxpayers’ money.”
About a dozen people addressed the school board, and almost all of them took issue with the mask mandate. Some acknowledged that board members had little choice in the mask matter and applauded their decision made last month to allow masks to be optional for students regardless of vaccination status.
The Johnsburg school board had made that decision after dozens of parents urged it to not require masks during a meeting that was broadcast on and uploaded to YouTube. The video was later removed from the online video giant’s platform because Google, its owner, initially said it contained statements that violated its misinformation policies surrounding COVID-19.
Video of the meeting was later restored to YouTube after the Google team determined the content fell under an exemption that let inaccuracies about the virus stand when contained in “educational, documentary, scientific or artistic [EDSA] context,” the Northwest Herald reported.
Still, other parents on Tuesday urged the school board to take a stand against Pritzker’s mandate and pointed to recently filed lawsuits and legal theories that have raised questions over whether the governor’s office had the power to issue that order.
Barrett dismissed those claims, saying that his and the school district attorney’s interpretation is that the governor clearly has the authority to order that masks to be worn in schools during the current public health crisis.
“If you know me outside, you know that I don’t agree with the masks, I don’t agree with the vaccine. But that is my personal opinion, I won’t impose that on any of you,” school board member Valerie Klos said. “When we sit up at this table, we are taking a different mindset. You can agree with that, not agree with that. But I will not put the risk of all of our good taxpayers in this community at stake over a mask.”
Officials in multiple school districts across McHenry County have said they plan to encourage vaccinations against COVID-19 for those eligible, and health experts at federal, state and local levels of government across Illinois and the nation repeatedly have said inoculations are the best way to prevent experiencing severe symptoms of COVID-19 and can play a major role in slowing the pandemic.
“There is no current law in the state of Illinois delegating to the governor the power to strip local control from a school district,” District 12 resident Nancy Thompson said.
She and others called the mask mandate a “bullying” tactic.
But state officials have shown they are serious about penalizing school systems that defy the order for students to be masked in schools.
Since last week, the Illinois State Board of Education has put 21 public school districts on probation for flouting the mandate, the Daily Herald reported Wednesday.
The districts are in Adams, Clay, Clinton, Edwards, Effingham, Franklin, Fulton, Hancock, Henderson, Jefferson, Knox, Livingston, Macon, Marion, Peoria, Randolph, Wayne and Winnebago counties.
“We will continue to act swiftly with both nonpublic and public schools that have confirmed they are not implementing universal indoor masking as required by Executive Order 2021-18,” Matthews said in an email to the Northwest Herald last week. “ISBE will not compromise students’ health and safety. Masking is a safe, easy and effective way to ensure all students can attend school in person this fall, where they can learn and grow to their fullest potential.”
• Northwest Herald editor Emily Coleman contributed to this report.