Just days after school districts across Oak Park and River Forest held off on easing their indoor masking policies, administrators and board members were met with a surprise this past weekend, forcing them to pivot yet again. 

Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced late Feb. 25 that staff and students could choose to be masked in schools starting Feb. 28. The decision came in time as the state removed the mask mandate in indoor places on Feb. 28 and was based on new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Last Friday, the CDC revised its guidelines, recommending masking in schools in areas of high transmission. The CDC now assesses transmission rates based on three key metrics: COVID-19  hospital admissions per 100,000 people in the past seven days; total number of new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people in the past seven days and percent of hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients. 

As of Feb. 28, the Cook County Department of Public Health reported a low transmission rate, with 55 new cases per 100,000 people. County public health officials also reported Feb. 28 that 3.2% of hospital beds are occupied by patients with COVID-19 and hospital admissions are also down. 

In an email sent Feb. 27, District 200 Superintendent Greg Johnson told employees and families that masks were now optional on school grounds and buses. Johnson said the district plans to continue its voluntary COVID-19 saliva testing on Thursdays, but in-season athletes were no longer required to test for the novel coronavirus. 

The district’s latest move to implement a mask-optional policy was a departure from its previous decision to hold off on relaxing its COVID safety measures, including indoor masking. During a Feb. 24 school board meeting, some D200 board members hesitated to greenlight a mask-optional policy and sought more input and guidance from local health officials and other medical professionals. The board planned to reconvene March 10 at the Committee of the Whole Meeting and discuss the issue, but that has changed because of Pritzker’s and the CDC’s announcements, district spokeswoman Karin Sullivan said. 

In addition, the Oak Park Department of Public Health also announced its stance to lift the indoor mask mandate Feb. 28, aligning with Pritzker’s plans. Local public health officials stated they continue to “support the use of masks” as an extra layer of protection from COVID and reminded that those who have symptoms should test immediately and stay home. Masks are still required on public transportation, including bus stations, train stations and airports, per the federal mandate. The Illinois State Board of Education has yet to offer guidelines for school districts that now implement a mask-optional policy. 

Sullivan told the Journal that school administrators felt the decision to move toward a mask-optional policy seemed “pretty clear cut” and do not plan on bringing the policy back to the board at this time. 

“Our feeling was if we’re following the science, then the time has come,” Sullivan said. “Our main concern is that everyone feels like their choice is supported. We want to make sure that everyone understands whatever choice a student makes, whatever choice a staff person makes, they are all supported now.” 

In the Feb. 27 email, Johnson acknowledged that while there are some people who are comfortable being unmasked, there may be others who aren’t and asked district staff, students and families to “respect all choices that others in the building make for themselves.” 

Other school districts in Oak Park and River Forest have also taken on the mask-optional policy but with caveats. Oak Park District 97 announced over the weekend that staff and students can choose to wear their masks beginning March 17, citing its need for time to prepare for the transition. In a districtwide email sent Feb. 27, district officials clarified that come March 17, masking indoors will no longer be required but is still “highly recommended.” Until then, all staff and students must be masked while inside the school buildings. School districts can still require universal masking for staff and students, despite the governor’s decision to lift indoor masking in schools. 

“While some members of our community are excited and ready to make this transition, there are others who are understandably feeling anxiety and stress,” the district wrote in a Feb. 27 newsletter sent to faculty, staff and families. “Waiting until March 17 provides time for staff to develop and communicate supports for our students, address accommodations for students who are immunocompromised, and work through updated guidance from the state.” 

In River Forest, District 90 joined District 200 and many other public schools across  Chicagoland and the state and became mask-optional on Feb. 28. But Superintendent Ed Condon told district families and employees via email that the D90 school board planned to review and vote on the policy at the March 1 board meeting. 

“District 90 will update and broadly communicate revised D90 safety mitigation protocols to reflect any essential details,” Condon wrote. “Face masks will continue to be available to all students and staff who desire them.” 

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