School superintendents: ‘It’s out of our hands’

Districts react to governor mandating masks in Illinois schools

OREGON — Whether students must mask-up in Ogle County schools is out of the hands of local leaders.

On Aug. 4, Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued an executive order mandating masks be worn in Illinois schools by students, staff and visitors age 2 and up who are medically able to tolerate a face covering, regardless of vaccination status. The order also applies to daycares, nursing homes and long-term care facilities. It brings the state in line with U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance.

The mandate forced a swift change of plans for Oregon, Polo and Forrestville Valley school districts, all of which plan to obey the order, according to their respective superintendents. If a district doesn’t comply, it risks losing state funding and insurance coverage and is opened to additional liability.

“In general, our families have been pretty good and understanding that this wasn’t a local decision,” said Tom Mahoney, Oregon Community Unit School District superintendent. “But, obviously, they’re frustrated with the sudden reversal.

“They’re feeling unempowered because of the change that occurred from the governor’s office,” he added.

Officials from Oregon, Polo and Forrestville Valley school districts in late July released back-to-school plans recommending — but not requiring — masks, except on district transportation. The plans included COVID-19 mitigation measures that would be adjusted throughout the 2021-22 school year based on local data.

As of Aug. 6, Ogle County’s seven-day rolling average of COVID-19 test positivity rate had increased to 4.5%, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. The data is on a three-day lag.

Pritzker’s order essentially takes away local control and the ability to use local data to determine what’s best for an individual district’s students and community, Mahoney said. Now, a municipality’s positivity rate doesn’t matter — everyone is subject to the same restrictions, he said.

Polo Community Unit School District Superintendent Kelly Mandrell said she has seen a variety of reactions to the executive order.

“It’s been a mix,” Mandrell said. “However, our board understands — and we feel our community understands — there’s a point when it’s out of our hands.”

The main objective is to keep the children safe and educate students, which is what the district plans to do, she said.

“We’re going to keep moving forward,” Mandrell said. “We really appreciate the community’s support during this time.”

Forrestville Valley School District Superintendent Sheri Smith was unable to be reached for additional comment before deadline.