Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200 now joins River Forest District 90 and Oak Park District 97 on a short list of local schools that have yet to ease COVID-19 safety measures, including the hot-button issue of indoor mask mandates.
During the Feb. 24 regular meeting, the OPRF District 200 school board called for more guidance from local public health officials and medical professionals before making any decisions on masking indoors or pausing COVID testing for in-season athletes or unvaccinated school employees. Superintendent Greg Johnson clarified to the board that the district had no plans to roll back its other safety measures, such as encouraging staff and students to get vaccinated against COVID, continuing voluntary saliva testing or sanitizing the building.
“I will always wait for or listen to the recommendations from our health professionals,” board member Kebreab Henry said. “I’m not going to offer my opinion because it’s not my expertise, and to do so is irresponsible.”
Henry told the board and Johnson that he, too, is “tired” of wearing masks but does not want to “have any setbacks and make it even worse.”
Johnson and OPRF attorney Caroline Roselli shared that D200 has been working with the Oak Park Department of Public Health and has often deferred to health officials for recommendations, but recent court rulings have changed that.
While the appellate court dismissed Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s appeal to uphold a mask mandate in schools, the court also gave school administrators “control” to implement their COVID-19 safety measures as they see fit, Roselli said. She explained that D200 can still collaborate with the Oak Park health department, but can also choose to “go a different direction.” According to the Illinois Association of School Administrators, more than 700 out of the roughly 850 public schools have moved toward optional masking.
Catholic schools in Lake County and most of Cook County have also decided to pursue a mask-option policy. Fenwick High School announced earlier this week that staff and students can choose to wear their masks. Earlier this month, the Archdiocese of Chicago notified families its decision to lift the indoor masking for several Catholic schools in the Chicagoland, but those with local health departments, including the city of Chicago, Oak Park and Evanston, were excluded until further notice.
“As some risks from COVID-19 remain, Fenwick still encourages students, faculty/staff and visitors to continue to wear masks while in Fenwick, and we will likely open some windows in classrooms to increase air circulation,” the Rev. Richard Peddicord, Fenwick’s president, wrote in a newsletter to families Feb. 23. “If COVID cases significantly increase over the coming weeks, this decision may be reversed.”
During the District 200 School Board meeting, Mary Anne Mohanraj echoed Henry and voiced concerns about how a mask-optional policy would impact students who are immunocompromised or live with loved ones who are at a greater risk of contracting the novel coronavirus.
“Is there any mechanism for students to participate remotely if they feel that they might be putting family members at risk, or is that just not going to be possible?” Mohanraj asked Johnson and OPRF attorney Caroline Roselli.
Roselli explained the district cannot accommodate students with family members who are immunocompromised, but are obligated to work with students who are immunocompromised and create an action plan that meets those students’ learning needs.
District 200 School Board plans to reconvene and discuss this issue further with Johnson and other administrators at the Committee of the Whole Meeting on March 10.
“We’re staying the course and continuing the conversation and relying on various voices as we move forward,” Johnson said. “We’ll talk more.”