ONEIDA, Ill. — Two weeks after the ROWVA School Board voted down its return to school plan, a new one has been approved, on a 6-1 vote.
Initially, several board members said they couldn't vote for any plan that contained a mask mandate. But, after a few additions and further clarification on issues including mask breaks and quarantining, the new plan was passed with mandated masks for at least the first quarter of school.
At the time of Wednesday night's special session, ROWVA had four students in quarantine - a number that Superintendent Joe Sornberger said was down from the start of the school year on August 23.
Before the board passed the current plan on Wednesday night, masks had been mandated for a two-week trial period at ROWVA.
Now, ROWVA's back-to-school plan will be in place until November 21. During the final school board meeting before that deadline, either a new plan will be discussed, or the current one will be extended, per an amendment added by Board Vice President Scott Lake.
The current plan will follow Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker's mask mandate for all students, staff and visitors. Contact tracing will be conducted, and students with signed parental consent waivers will be able to take a COVID test at school if they show symptoms.
There will also be four guaranteed mask breaks each day for elementary students, including lunch, recess, P.E. and time spent outdoors with teachers.
"If weather is bad, they spread out in the classroom so they're all six feet away when they take their masks off," ROWVA Central Elementary School Principal Kerry Danner said. "Breaks are typically only five minutes long."
At the high school, students are allowed to go outdoors for passing periods and take their masks off at that time.
"And in the mornings they can stand on the front lawn until the bell rings at 7:55 with their masks off," Principal of ROWVA Jr/Sr High School said. "PE classes are outside each day for a minimum of 40 minutes with masks off."
Students who do have to quarantine will now be eligible to test back into school, six days after their last exposure, although sports will still be off the table for 14 days after an exposure.
"Adding that option in gets our kids back here quicker," Sornberger said. "We had several students, last week due to a softball quarantine, who tested out and were able to be back in a short amount of time."
Moving forward, the school does have an option to get students back even quicker. According to Sornberger, if at least 100 students, with signed permission from their guardians, agree to get tested weekly, there is the possibility of a 'test to stay program' at ROWVA.
"We would have to test 100 students a week just to see what's going on with the population," Sornberger said. "Then we would have a test to stay. So if a kid is in quarantine, they could still come to school if they pass [the test] on the first, third, fifth and seventh days. I think that would be a benefit for our students, but we do have some hurdles to get there."
Additionally, the school will now hire tutors specifically to help quarantined students, and the district is encouraging teachers to host Google Meets with kids who are home due to COVID.
"I am willing to pay any teacher willing to meet with quarantined students after school hours," Sornberger stated during Wednesday night's special session.
Vice President Lake did manage to pass several amendments to the plan before it was voted through. Beyond the November 21 deadline, he also pushed for a new committee to examine the learning gap that could have formed during the pandemic.
"I want to create a metric to track learning progress as well as a way to find out what the learning gap was for the last few years of the pandemic," Sornberger said.
Lake also successfully passed a future COVID communication plan, to keep the ROWVA students and community informed of all updates.
His amendments passed on a 5-2 vote, with Board President Jim Haynes and Secretary Rob Kalb dissenting.
Ultimately, every board member voted for the complete back to school plan except for John Kuelper.
Before the vote took place, the board heard public comment. In a far cry from the meeting two weeks ago, the majority of the full audience were teachers, alongside parents, and almost all who spoke were in favor of a mask mandate.
One of the most moving speeches of the night came from ROWVA senior, Abigail Lee, who gave an emotional plea for her senior year to not be taken away.
"If I have to wear a mask to be able to have my senior year, I will wear a mask," Lee said while choking back tears. "I want to have my cross country season and I want to have my marching band season. I would like the volleyball and football teams to have their senior year."
Lee was referring to a threat from the Illinois State Board of Education, which has said sanctions will be imposed on schools that refused to follow COVID protocols - including mask mandates - put in place by Governor Pritzker. Those sanctions can include the loss of state funding, state-sanctioned sports and state recognition of graduation diplomas.
She said one upcoming cross country meet she wanted to go to, the Peoria First to the Finish Cross Country Invitational, has already said schools going against the governor's mandate will not be allowed to compete on September 11.
"COVID is not over and we all know this. Hospitals are filling up because of it. I want to be able to have a senior year, so please allow me to have my senior year," Lee said.
Lee later told News 8 that speaking in front of the board was one of the scariest things she'd done all year, but she felt compelled to give the perspective of a student.
"This is our education. This is my education. This is my school, this is where I've gone all my life, and I love ROWVA," Lee said. "I just thought it was very important to have a student's perspective on this topic because we have so many things that could potentially be taken away from us. And I don't want that for anybody."
One of the things Lee was most worried about losing during her senior year was her marching band season. A clarinet player, she said she wants to play for the marching band in college.
"I didn't get a season last year until the end of the school year when we put together a mini show. We didn't even get to do a parade, and that was heartbreaking for me," Lee said. "For my classmates, their volleyball seasons were pushed back, and then in the spring, shortened. So were the football seasons."
Others who spoke in favor of the mandates included ROWVA parents, like Sarah Anderson, who said she also works as a nurse at a local hospital. After discussing all of the different patients she's treated for COVID over the past year and a half, she began to cry, telling the board that their decision directly impacted that.
"I moved back [to ROWVA] to raise my kids in a community that cares," Anderson said. "Please keep our students safe. Please allow our children to come back to school with masks."
ROWVA father, Aaron Frey, echoed her sentiments, saying of his two kids, a third grader and a kindergartner, both would become upset whenever they had remote learning days, but weren't bothered by wearing masks.
"Everyone in our schools deserves to be protected," Frey said. "This is not about state and local government. This is about our children, about our students, about our teachers."
And several teachers spoke in favor of the mandates as well.
History teacher Chris Campagna explained that as an educator and coach, he didn't understand the pros and cons.
"I've had these conversations with individual students. They're like last year was really rough on me. And now we're in the position where students are being made as political pawns," Campagna said. "Someone like [Abigail] Lee who has worked almost 18 months, thinking I'm almost to my senior year, I've got opportunities here, she feels that they're slipping away. To me, there are many cons."
Teacher Sarah Manecke spoke about the impact masks had on her teaching.
"I want to assure you that the masks are not a hinderance to our students. We can see their smiles, even if we can't physically see their smiles," Manecke said. "The masks are not the problem."
Colleen Ferry, a kindergarten teacher, agreed.
"These children can see our friendly faces even though they don't see our smiles. They know they're there," Ferry said. "The happiness I bring to a classroom, mask or no mask, that is the same. I am concerned if we go against the mandate."
When speaking about the new learning plan the board would later approve, she argued that if the only protocol difference from what was implemented over the course of the 2020-2021 school year was a full-time mask mandate, then she would prefer that over whatever consequences and protocols might be instated for a school that goes against the governor, or comes down with an outbreak.
"If the only thing that changes is that my students are having to wear a mask, then I can bring to them, as a teacher, what I can," Ferry said. "But if we have to do other things, whatever those things in place might be, I don't get to bring to my students what I am supposed to."