School districts across Oak Park and River Forest may revamp their COVID-19 strategies after Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s appeal to uphold a mask mandate in Illinois schools was dismissed last week by the appellate court. The decision – which came just before midnight Feb. 17 – sent area education leaders into a frenzy, as they notified families of the districts’ next steps before heading into a long weekend. School districts such as Oak Park District 97, River Forest District 90 and Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200, was closed today for Presidents Day. D90 and D200 are also closed Feb. 22 for staff professional development.
The recent decision was made by a three-member panel on the Illinois Fourth District Appellate Court and indicated school districts can choose how to implement their COVID-19 mitigations. Early this month, a judge in downstate Sangamon County granted a temporary restraining order (TRO) prohibiting masking requirements for more than 100 school districts, prompting Pritzker to file an appeal. In addition, the Illinois Joint Commission on Administrative Rules, a group made up of Democratic and Republican lawmakers, met last week and voted to suspend the emergency rules, including masking, set forth by the Illinois Department of Public Health.
At this point, education leaders in Oak Park and River Forest have made some small changes to their COVID plans, noting more decisions are expected to be made once school board members meet this week. In an email sent to staff and families, Supt. Ed Condon said D90 was lifting its masking requirement for all outdoor activities, including recess or practice, this week. That means, staff and students can choose to wear their masks outdoors, Condon said. Other safety protocols, including masking indoors, are to be discussed at the Feb. 22 school board meeting.
“There’s a lot for the board to deliberate and learn more about and then come to a consensus around – not just on Tuesday – but certainly in the coming weeks as we move through the pandemic,” Condon told Wednesday Journal in a separate interview.
While D90 may undergo some changes, Condon told the Journal that there is one thing that will remain the same.
“What will not change will be [the district’s commitment] to put the safety of students, families and staff at the forefront of our priorities; continuing to provide high quality learning for all of our students and striving to provide social emotional supports that are needed right now – even [if] individuals disagree on specifics. Our community very strongly agrees that the students are our top priority, which is a really fortunate place for any community,” he said.
District 97 co-interim Superintendents Griff Powell and Patricia Wernet sent a similar memo on optional masking for outdoor activities late last week.
“Those who feel more comfortable wearing a mask outdoors are encouraged to do so. We would be grateful if families would please assist by stressing the need for ongoing kindness, respect and understanding about others’ choices when discussing this change at home,” they wrote in the Feb. 18 letter.
The two also encouraged staff and students to “maintain physical distance to the greatest extent possible” and specified that lunchroom protocols are still under review. They explained further that masks must be worn indoors except when eating or drinking, and Oak Park public health officials have advised staff and students to “focus on eating” and “limit loud talking” while unmasked in the lunchroom to “reduce the risk of aerosol spread” and impede the spread of COVID-19, the Feb. 18 memo reiterated. District 97 also looks to review its COVID-19 practices during a Feb. 22 school board meeting.
Meanwhile, at D200, Supt. Greg Johnson said loosening the quarantine restrictions is the “only action” the high school is taking at this time. In an email to staff and families, Johnson said that asymptomatic, unvaccinated students or employees named close contacts of a positive COVID-19 case no longer need to be quarantined.
“This change is effective immediately,” Johnson wrote in the Feb. 18 email, clarifying that those identified as close contacts from a Feb. 18 SHIELD testing result can return to school Feb. 23.
Like Condon, Powell and Wernet, Johnson also told staff and families District 200 school board members plan to talk about and update the COVID-19 strategies at its Feb. 24 regular meeting.
“Until the time when a decision regarding mitigations is reached, we expect all students, employees and visitors to continue to comply with our existing measures,” Johnson wrote. “As always, our top priority remains the health and safety of our students, staff and community. We appreciate your patience and understanding as we continue to navigate these uncertain times.”
The schools have to ‘dial it down’
In light of recent events, some Oak Park and River Forest residents have voiced concerns over their school districts’ current safety measures, urging local education leaders to roll back the mitigations, starting with mandatory indoor masking. Less than a dozen River Forest parents even gathered outside District 90 administration offices last week, pushing for optional masking.
“Our kids are starting to notice this double standard that’s existing, and it’s becoming really hard to justify, explain or keep up,” said Meredith Natale, a District 90 parent who participated in the rally Feb. 15 outside D90 offices.
Natale told the Journal masking requirements in schools have become “confusing,” especially after a judge in downstate Illinois issued the order preventing the enforcement of mandatory masking in several schools and area Catholic schools have moved toward optional masking. The issue also comes as Pritzker aims to remove masking requirements in most indoor places beginning Feb. 28, including local businesses, adding more skepticism from parents like Natale.
Natale and other D90 parents launched a petition via Change.org, asking the district’s school board to call a special meeting Feb. 21 and discuss whether to end the mask mandate.
District 90 School Board President Barb Hickey and Vice President Stacey Williams could not be reached for immediate comment. Condon said he was aware of the petition, which as of Feb. 21 has garnered approximately 242 supporters, and added that the “district’s intention right now is to proceed with the regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 22.”
Natale told the Journal that apart from eliminating the mask mandate, she would like the district to forgo contract tracing and other COVID mitigations. Natale said she believed the contract tracing is “far reaching” and that it’s time for the district to “dial it down.”
“The message needs to be about education in schools,” she said. “Our kids know that COVID exists. They don’t need to be reminded of it eight hours a day. They don’t need to feel fear from their teachers because a mask falls below their nose. I really find that the message of fear is really still being played out in this community, and it really troubles me.”
As of Feb. 21, the Cook County Department of Public Health reported 15 new positive COVID cases in suburban River Forest. About 75% of River Forest’s eligible population has taken both shots of a two-shot vaccination series. Something less than 90% of eligible River Forest residents have at least one dose of a two-shot vaccination series, according to county data. The county, however, also reported that its community transmission level still remains high, recording a total of 499,097 COVID cases as of Feb. 18.
In nearby Oak Park, public health officials reported 117 new cases of COVID-19 last week and that the positive cases have impacted people of all ages, including infants to residents in their 90s. Community transmission rates in Oak Park are high, but positivity rates have also continued to decline alongside the state average, the department noted.
Parents from Oak Park District 97 have also created a petition via Change.org, calling for school administrators to soften the COVID-19 protocols. Among a batch of requests, petition signers want to see the district lift masking requirements indoors and allow parents and other family members back inside the school buildings to attend events. The petition also seeks to allow students to interact more during lunch.
Josh Vanderberg, a D97 parent who helped write the petition, and Stephanie Harris, an Oak Park resident who supported the petition, said the petition was meant to open up a conversation among board members, school administrators, local public health officials and families and talk about the district’s current strategies. Harris, whose child currently attends private school, said these conversations are also about accountability, “to make sure that the people who are making decisions for us are really being thoughtful about those decisions.”
“It’s not demanding that we do everything right now, but it’s asking that we come up with a path toward normalcy and give something more than ‘just know we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing right now in perpetuity,’” Vanderberg said.