In a close vote Tuesday, the River Forest District 90 School Board tabled by a 4-3 margin a decision on issuing a mask optional policy for staff and students. School administrators recommended making masks optional by Feb. 28, as the state looks to lift its indoor mask mandate, but the board sought more clarity on how the district would respond if cases climbed or if more outbreaks occurred.
Board members Rich Moore and Nicole Thompson voiced concerns over lifting D90’s indoor mask mandate and asked whether it was time to do so, anticipating the possibility of increased cases once staff and students return from spring break later in the semester. The district saw at least five outbreak cases last month after staff and students returned from a two-week winter holiday break, said Thompson, who voted “yes” to table the decision. In a matter of weeks, district officials reported about 150 COVID cases among staff and students, a quick departure from the single cases they experienced since the beginning of the school year.
“Does it seem like the best time to do this?” Thompson asked Superintendent Ed Condon, who led the presentation on optional masking on behalf of the administration. “We’re still dealing with an outbreak that started from the time we had our holiday break, and we’re about to go [into] spring break.”
“That’s a very legitimate question,” Condon answered, adding that COVID-19 cases at District 90 have tapered off since the uptick in January. He told Thompson and other members that the district’s confirmed outbreak cases involved three COVID cases among a specific group of people such as teachers, staff or students. School outbreak cases are also defined as multiple cases impacting at least 10% of teachers, staff and students within a core group, which D90 officials did not detect.
During a presentation, Condon explained why he and other administrators recommended moving toward a mask optional policy across the three-school district, citing D90’s high vaccination rate and overall “stable” COVID-19 transmission rates as just two of the contributing factors. About 60% of the district’s eligible 5- to 11-year-olds and roughly 70% of students who are 12 years old and older are vaccinated against the novel coronavirus, Condon said.
The district also plans to continue its other safety measures such as COVID screenings, outbreak testing, social distancing and frequent handwashing. Like many other schools nearby, district officials made some minor changes regarding its COVID policies, including allowing staff and students the option of wearing their masks outdoors. Staff or students who are asymptomatic and identified as “close contacts” no longer need to quarantine but are advised to stay home and test for COVID-19.
But Moore, who also cast a “yes” vote, was still skeptical.
“What happens when there is an outbreak? What are the metrics?” Moore asked, adding that if the district were to reimpose the mask mandate after implementing a masking option “it would be very confusing for kids.”
Echoing Moore and Thompson, board member Sarah Eckmann asked Condon if he and other administrators could get more guidance and information from local health officials. Eckmann believed the proposed Feb. 28 date did not give the district enough time to revamp its COVID protocols and have “guardrails,” if cases do rise.
Board President Barb Hickey, however, said health officials may not have a response to that but noted it is a question worth asking.
“Once you have relaxed the standard, it becomes more difficult to reinstate it when you need to,” said Hickey, who voted “no” to table the decision. “I think clarity is very important.”
Board Vice President Stacey Williams and board member Katie Avalos joined Hickey and cast dissenting votes. Board member Cal Davis voted “yes” to table the decision, rounding out the majority of the votes.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, parents from District 90 also weighed in on the issue. Some parents urged the school board and administrators to implement a mask option, with one parent saying people now “have all the tools” to stay safe against COVID-19. Others, however, encouraged the district to uphold its mask mandate and consider the students who are not eligible yet for the COVID-19 vaccine or cannot receive the vaccine because of other medical reasons.
Members of the River Forest Education Association (RFEA), a collective bargaining unit made up of D90 faculty and staff, also shared their thoughts at the meeting. Louisa Starr and Victoria Bynum, both of whom are D90 teachers and co-presidents of RFEA, submitted a letter to the board, saying they surveyed their members and found they were “nearly evenly split” on the issue.
“The survey truly clarified the complexity of the issue,” Starr and Bynum wrote. “As is the case in the community as a whole, we have no clear majority of opinions and many different voices in the mix. We know that the board has a difficult series of decisions to make under the current circumstances. Health and safety looks different for different families and staff.
“We would like to reassure the board and the community that although our perspectives vary, our top priority is the well-being of our students and the health of our schools.”
The school board plans to reconvene March 1 and open the discussion on the mask optional policy during the Committee of the Whole meeting.
“We do recognize that everybody’s tired,” Hickey said. “God knows we’re all tired, and the kids are tired. We don’t want to continue to do this any longer than we need to, but it is a complex decision to balance all of these factors.”
District 97 holds off on changes to COVID-19 policies
The Oak Park District 97 School Board also met with administrators Feb. 22 to consider easing some of its COVID-19 mitigations, including lifting the indoor mask mandate.
Co-interim Superintendent Patricia Wernet and communications director Amanda Siegfried led a brief presentation Tuesday night during a regular meeting, telling the board that the district was not ready to roll back its safety measures and continue its current efforts.
Like District 90, administrators announced that face masks are optional for all outdoor activities and that staff and students who are asymptomatic, unvaccinated and identified as close contacts no longer need to quarantine. People who are named as close contacts will be encouraged to monitor their symptoms closely, Siegfried clarified via email to Wednesday Journal.
“Our primary focus at this time continues to be the well-being of our students,” Wernet told the board. “We’ve had layered mitigations. We’ve been successful keeping our buildings and communities safe. We’re committed to taking a thoughtful, science-based approach as we consider any changes to our protocols moving forward.”
Wernet and Siegfried said the decision to maintain the current COVID-19 protocols was in line with the Oak Park Department of Public Health’s recommendations. Local health officials have advised the school district to assess its mitigations over a two-week period “to ensure that we aren’t seeing an impact on our cases,” Siegfried wrote in an email to the Journal. The district plans to use the health department’s list of metrics as a guide to determine whether to lift or continue the indoor mask mandate.
A decrease in community transmission rates, community positivity rates and hospitalizations are among the metrics that will be examined before the village removes masking inside public places.
Public health officials reported that the village has met two of those guidelines – a low positivity rate (at least 5% for a sustained period of time) and a vaccination rate exceeding 75%. According to a Feb. 23 village newsletter, Oak Park has a 2.06% positivity rate and 80% of its residents are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
Community transmission rates are still relatively high in Oak Park. The village also reported Feb. 23 that its COVID-19 rate at 169 cases per 100,000 people. Though that is a slight dip from the 215 cases per 100,000 people reported earlier this month, moderate levels per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are between 10 to 50 cases per 100,000 people.
Siegfried and Wernet told board members they would also need to factor in district data prior to deciding whether to soften its mitigation efforts. With spring break nearing, Wernet expressed some concern over the possibility of increased COVID cases once students return from a weeklong spring break in April. District 97 saw a high number of COVID cases last month at the beginning of the second semester last month.
Cases ballooned into the triple digits, thrusting hundreds of school workers and students into quarantine and forcing four out of the 10 district schools to close down. But those numbers have significantly dropped since then, Siegfried said to board members.
“This is really encouraging that we’re moving in the right direction,” said Siegfried of declining COVID cases, adding that a large portion of students continues to be tested weekly for the novel coronavirus. COVID-19 testing for students is voluntary, and the district has a 9.5% opt-out rate.
“We do not want the same results after spring break. We will closely monitor our metrics after spring break and decide if mitigation measures are appropriate based on our metrics,” Wernet added, urging families to monitor their children’s symptoms, especially if they are traveling.
During the meeting, board member Cheree Moore asked Wernet and Siegfried questions, one of which included whether the administration had a target date in mind of when it would relax mitigations.
“We’re going to take one mitigation at a time, measure and evaluate it over a two-week period and review the community data – but most importantly our district data,” Wernet responded.