Our View: School boards must make some difficult decisions

Remote learning is not an option in Illinois this year, so school leaders must determine if masks will be required in the classroom

Schools throughout Illinois are set to open next month and in preparation, school boards and administrators are making decisions about what that will look like.

These often-contentious decisions are related to the pandemic, required vaccinations and whether students will be required to wear a mask when they return to class.

Hybrid models and staying remote this fall aren’t options: The state says public schools must resume in-person learning for the upcoming school year, with few exceptions.

And with parents returning to the workplace and fewer able to work remotely, returning students to the classroom is important on that front as well. Parents can’t be as flexible as they could be last school year.

On July 9, federal and state officials presented guidelines for school leaders to consider when making their local decisions.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends, and the Illinois Department of Public Health assents, COVID-19 vaccines for children 12 and older, calling them safe and effective tools that can “keep your child from getting seriously sick even if they do get COVID-19.” Vaccines are not yet available for children younger than 12.

A major element of the updated guidance also includes masks being worn indoors by all individuals age 2 and older who are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19. State officials also encourage physical distancing of at least 3 feet and students and staff staying home if they are sick to help reduce the risk of transmission.

These guidelines are a challenge, especially in schools where classrooms and hallways are small and restricted.

But the question of masks is the one that seems at the top of many parents’ minds as divides have formed within several communities between those who support mask wearing and vaccinations and those who don’t.

Consider the situation at the Oswego School District 308 Board of Education meeting on July 12. During the public comment portion of its meeting, which was monitored by village police officers, speaker after speaker criticized the use of face masks and vaccines for students. And when those who spoke in support of students wearing masks, they were heckled and jeered by many in the audience. Two school board members said after the meeting they received threats via email.

Before the meeting concluded, the school board voted 6-0, with one member abstaining, to make face masks optional for students for the upcoming school year.

Similar scenes are expected in communities throughout the state as school boards and administrators determine how to implement pandemic rules and procedures.

These decisions are difficult, but are made more so when under such public duress.

Students need to return to school. Over the past year and a half, our children, their teachers and parents have had to navigate remote learning. Some – students, teachers and parents – have performed well under even the worst conditions. But more have not. The stories they tell of their experiences are sometimes horrifying.

We likely won’t know how many students have been left behind until everyone returns to class and teachers and administrators assess where they stand in their new grade as expectations and the pace of learning increases.

Teachers also likely will face challenging behaviors and aggression, and the disciplinary issues that will result. We don’t want our teachers to spend the bulk of the school day policing this behavior.

We don’t want classrooms to face similar situations as when airline employees are confronted by unruly passengers who don’t want to wear a mask.

Now is the time to get involved in the decision-making process. And if you do get involved, communicate with school board members and administrators in a civil way.

But also understand this cannot be an us vs. them issue. It is proven that wearing a mask is safer than not wearing one and being vaccinated protects you more than if you aren’t.

School board members and administrators need to be transparent in their decision-making process. These decisions need to be determined now and not dealt with once school starts.

And once those decisions are made, we all have to follow the rules, no matter what the rules are.