Masks are a question on the mind of many as the 2021-22 school year approaches.
School districts across Illinois are considering their options for the coming year after the Centers for Disease Control and Illinois Department of Public Health sent out guidance on COVID-19 protocols recently.
Hoopeston Area Superintendent Robert Richardson discussed these protocols during Thursday’s Hoopeston Area Board of Education meeting.
Richardson said the district had received an email stating that IDPH had adopted the CDC guidelines followed shortly thereafter by an email from the state superintendent confirming this decision.
Initially, he said, these guidelines require masks for individuals who are not fully vaccinated, but the Illinois State Board of Education sent out a point of clarification soon after stating that masks should be worn indoors by all individuals who are not fully vaccinated.
However, Richardson said the ISBE included a statement that if school districts chose to remove any of the prevention strategies for their school district based on local health conditions, they should remove them one at a time and monitor closely.
Richardson said he has attended several webinars on the issue and had an administrative academy with the focus of reopening schools.
He said the county superintendents have discussed this and consulted with attorneys on the matter.
Richardson said the attorneys said the schools could phase it in by having students wear masks for the first few weeks of school before doing away with the requirement.
During one of the meetings on the subject, Richardson said he pointed out that no one in the Hoopeston Area community has had a mask on since the end of May and pointed out the difficulty of getting people to wear masks again once school starts.
“I just don’t think it’s going to work,” he said.
Richardson said the district has this opportunity to remove a preventative strategy when it comes to COVID-19.
He listed the preventative strategies on the table: masking, social distancing, cleaning/sterilizing, installing HEPA filters, etc.
Richardson said the district had asked for feedback on reopening with masks required from district residents using social media and thanked those who had responded to the post.
“Good, bad or indifferent, it doesn’t matter, I want to know your opinion,” he said. “What do you feel about coming back to school? Overwhelmingly, people said masks shouldn’t be mandatory. Folks, I tend to agree.”
Richardson pointed out how students have been hanging out together throughout the summer and there haven’t been big outbreaks of cases as a result.
Richardson said the district will need to put a plan in place that allows district students to come back to school.
He said the districts transition team will need to come up with a plan for how to start the school year.
Richardson added that any students or teachers who feel they need wear will be welcome to do so.
“If someone feels like they need to wear a mask, they’re welcome,” he said. “But I don’t want to require masks to come back to school.”
Richardson said the guidance says school districts need to monitoring the situation with COVID-19 closely and working with the health department to keep track of infection rates.
Should the metrics of infection rates rise to a certain point that concerns the health department, Richardson said they may have to require masks again.
“We might have to go back to masks,” he said. “Heaven forbid that we would have to do that, but if our transmission rate goes up, if we see that increase, then we would have to go back to masks.”
Richardson said the guidelines state that masking is universally required on buses and school-related transportation.
“I’m fine with that,” he said. “They’ve removed the capacity limits from the bus, so now we can put 70 kids on the bus if we need to. I think you need to be masking those kids. Just on the bus.”
Richardson also spoke about remote learning.
He said remote learning will only be available for students who are unvaccinated or ineligible for vaccination and you are under a quarantine by a local health department or IDPH.
“So kids sitting at home doing work is only going to be temporary moving forward this year,” he said.
Richardson said the guidelines they had received prior to the meeting were just the barebones and that more guidance was supposed to be coming out soon.
“We have to be patient and we have to wait for further guidance to come out,” he said.
Richardson proposed waiting until the following week to see what guidance to come out then get together and develop a plan for what reopening will look like.
“We are not at a place where we are ready to approve anything. We don’t have a plan put together, but we have the framework, so we would anticipate a special board meeting in early August,” he said. “Give the state some time to get us recommendations or guidance and then formulate our plan from that.”