HENDERSON COUNTY, ILLINOIS, Ill. — Update:
The West Central School District is changing its masking requirements for the 2021-2022 school year. Despite previously voting to defy a statewide mask mandate in schools, members on the district's Board of Education have changed their minds.
The board voted on Wednesday, August 18 to follow Governor J.B. Pritzker's executive order.
As of Thursday, August 19, all students, staff, and visitors must wear masks inside and on school transportation.
Superintendent Paula Markey issued the following statement:
"We understand this is a divisive topic, and that many have close held opinions with regard to COVID and masks on both sides. Governor Pritzker's Executive Order requires masks be worn inside by students, staff, and visitors. The Board of Education voted to follow the mandate because of the significant risks to students, staff, and the school of not following the mandate. We will continue to love our students and to place our focus on providing the best education possible to them."
The West Central School District voted 5-2 Tuesday to defy Gov. JB Pritzker’s mask mandate, and will instead recommend students and staff wear masks in the building.
Superintendent Paula Markey sent this statement regarding the vote to News 8. It reads, in part:
"This plan contains layered mitigations and recommends masks for all students, staff, and visitors while inside the school buildings and requires masks while driving or riding on a school bus and during all IHSA and IESA activities and athletics. The plan also communicates that the health and wellbeing of our students and staff will be monitored continually and adjustments to the plan will be made if needed. The full plan can be found on our district website."
BJ Kelly is a parent to two kids in the district and attended the school board meeting.
"Now, don't get me wrong, I understand COVID is dangerous," Kelly said. "It's about choice. The parents should have the choice whether their kids are going with masks."
He added that with the numbers of COVID-19 cases in the county being so low, it doesn't make sense for masks to be required. However, if case numbers were to rise, he'd support the district's choice to require masks.
"If the school district locally decides that we need to mitigate the circumstances better, I fully think that they should have that choice," Kelly said.
Right now Henderson County is the only county in the state with a low spread of COVID-19, with only five active cases, but Angela Myers, the County Health Department Public Health Administrator, is worried schools are going to be super spreaders.
"Henderson County is only 6,700 people. We have no large industries; the school is the biggest employer," Myers said. "It is frustrating because I just don't think that they realize the potential there that, you know, if one person, if a child gets it, they go to grandma's house, and they spread it. They don't know that they've got it and then grandma and grandpa have it."
Myers wrote a letter to Superintendent Markey recommending they follow the mask mandate, and spoke at the school board meeting.
"With this new Delta variance, it's, it's coming on again with a vengeance," she said. "We all know that the masks are the number one barrier. It isn't 100%, we all know that, but it helps."
Any district that goes against the mask mandate risks the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) revoking recognition status, meaning state and federal funding would be cut and students would be ineligible to participate in athletics.
The ISBE has regulatory authority, pursuant to 23 Ill Admin. Code 1.20, to ensure school districts protect students and staff, and if the school districts fail to do so, it risks state recognition.
In a letter to Illinois Superintendents, Dr. Carmen Ayala, State Superintendent of Education, explained:
"A district would have multiple opportunities to remedy the deficiencies that present a health hazard or a danger to students or staff before becoming unrecognized. A district would first have its recognition status changed to 'On Probation' and would be asked to submit a corrective action plan. Failure to address the deficiencies would lead to nonrecognition, meaning total loss of access to state funding and loss of the school's ability to engage in any Illinois High School Association and Illinois Elementary School Association athletic competitions."
Also in that letter, Ayala wrote, "the executive order has the force of law," and "noncompliance is not an option." Read the full letter here.