ONEIDA, Ill. — On Monday night, the R.O.W.V.A. School Board voted against adopting a proposed back to school plan. Part of that plan included mandatory masking, as required under an executive order from Governor J.B. Pritzker. It was that mask mandate that too many board members couldn't stand behind.
However, school starts in R.O.W.V.A. on Monday, August 23. For now, the board has decided to use the very plan they voted against, for two weeks, then come back together on September 1 to vote on a new plan.
The move comes just a day after an outbreak was confirmed among the school's varsity football team. Under current guidelines, an outbreak can be classified as such when two or more individuals test positive. As of Monday night, the Knox County Health Department had informed the school of two positive tests among players.
"We can't guarantee that this came from football, but we have two kids that have [Covid]," said R.O.W.V.A. Superintendent Joe Sornberger. "We're taking all the precautions needed so we can still continue to play football this season."
The team's first game is scheduled for Friday, August 27. Sornberger told News 8 he was confident they would be able to play by then.
"You have to understand that when we quarantine, it doesn't mean we quarantine everybody. We're trying to look at some options so we continue to play," he said. "We continue to work with the Knox County Health Department hand in hand on things and try to keep our kids as safe as possible."
Keeping kids in athletics is a big concern for R.O.W.V.A. Athletic Director Grant Gullstrand. It compelled him to speak at Monday's school board meeting, to beg members to abide by the governor's mask requirement.
"There is nothing more special than high school athletics. Every time we have to postpone practices it hurts even more," he said. Gullstrand brought up the football team, and said even though they had followed the health and safety guidelines, they were still impacted by the virus. Without following those guidelines, he fears Covid will take students out of practices and games, as well as cost the school the opportunity to play in state and regional championships, as threatened for districts who won't follow the mandate. "We'll take away their opportunities and memories and they don't deserve that. The surest path we have to give them athletics and education is following the mandate," he said.
R.O.W.V.A. mother, Christinel Cain, and her daughter, Ali, agreed with Gullstrand. Christinel asked the board to make the 'wise and safe' choice for students, so they can stay in school as much as possible this year.
"These kids have already experienced enough disappointment in the last year and a half," she said.
Ali, a rising senior at R.O.W.V.A. this fall, wrote some words for her mother to read to the board, mentioning how excited she was to play in sports this fall after missing out last year.
"It's not about disliking our governor. The real issue is not wearing the mask," said Christinel. "The real issue is being taken away from your friends and activities. If wearing the mask means protecting those things for the students, then kids are gonna comply."
Another district parent, Corey Fineran, said if the school couldn't offer full remote learning this year, it was the responsibility of the district and the community to keep kids safe. He also questioned what message it would send if school's defied a government order.
"Schools that ignore state government and educational leadership rules show their students that they shouldn't follow a rule if they don't like it. How can a school expect students to follow dress code rules and rules of conduct at school when their communities have set the precedence that it's okay to disobey a rule when you disagree with them," asked Fineran. "How can we expect our students to follow local, state and federal laws when their community and school choose not to follow the rules they are given?" He went on to compare it to students following speed limits and seatbelt laws. "How can those schools produce law abiding citizens when they lead by example by showing that an individual can pick and choose which rules to follow, and one person's desires are more important than the health and well being of others?"
But the majority of the crowd that spoke at Monday's board meeting was against the mandate. Many called the governor's mandate tyranny, including Barb Salene.
"This government reaches the kind of tyranny that started the revolutionary war," she said. "Teachers are trying to throw in their two cents but they need to remember that our tax dollars pay for their salaries."
Another Knox County resident, Chris Brown, agreed, asking when the mask mandates would ever end.
"Why are we talking about this again? Oh yes, more fear and control," she said. "Will it ever end? I think it ends when people stand up and say no more."
Others, like Susan Vinson, brought up the contagious nature of the virus, but argued a small school district like R.O.W.V.A. didn't need to have the same solutions as bigger cities.
"One size doesn't fit all - this is Knox County, but it's also R.O.W.V.A. - it's a small school," she said. "If things are bad, we should protect them. But we don't start with the worst option."
There were also remarks from Keko Martinez, a former Rock Island County resident who moved over to Knox County. While speaking, he mentioned how his own son died of Covid-19, and then he himself was intubated due to Covid-19 just a few days later.
"But we still want people to chose their own rights of what to do with their bodies," he told the board. "When you start bowing before the almighty government, you're on your knees."
Following the hour-long public comment section, the board than began a nearly two hour long debate of their own, which ultimately ended in the failure of the back to school proposal.
R.O.W.V.A. had intended on starting school on Tuesday, August 18, but construction projects throughout the district pushed the start of classes back to August 23.