Staff and students at Oak Park District 97 elementary schools will soon have the choice of not wearing their masks indoors, joining River Forest District 90, Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200 and hundreds of others that have already gone mask optional. With D97’s newest masking policy to take effect March 17, school officials recently released an FAQ guide for staff and families moving into a “masks recommended, not required” environment.

School officials held off on making indoor masking optional immediately after Gov. J.B. Pritzker lifted the requirement late last month because they needed more time to plan and figure out the next steps, said D97 communications director Amanda Siegfried. Pritzker announced a plan Feb. 25 to lift the indoor masking requirements for all schools and daycare centers, just three days before ending indoor masking for many public places. But the debate on whether masks should be required in schools had been bubbling for some time, especially after a downstate judge ruled against the mask mandate.

On top of that, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released new guidelines, recommending masking in schools only in areas of high transmission. Last week, the Oak Park Department of Public Health reported a “low” transmission rate with 75 cases per 100,000 people. This is the first time Oak Park has been in that range since last November, local authorities reported.

“It was never our intention to make decisions overnight or make changes overnight, but really to do [a] gradual transition to ease off mitigations,” Siegfried told Wednesday Journal.

In a districtwide email sent early this month, co-interim Superintendents Patricia Wernet and Griff Powell told families there are still some conditions around the district’s latest masking policy. While staff and students can choose to wear or not wear their face masks indoors, outdoors or on the school bus, they must be masked in areas of the schools where weekly COVID-19 testing take place. Those testing areas are considered healthcare facilities, said Wernet and Powell in the email.

“The district will have disposable masks available, however, we encourage families to make sure that their students bring their own masks on their designated testing days,” the two wrote, adding D97 will also continue to provide staff and students with KN95 face masks and surgical masks.

Wernet and Powell also told families that the district has “local control to make decisions that are best for the school community.” So, required masking could be reinstated if a new state or local mandate is imposed or if local conditions such as a high transmission rate occurred. The district also plans to continue its other safety measures, including quarantine for individuals who test positive for COVID-19, vaccine promotion for eligible students, social distancing, cleaning and disinfecting, and more.

When asked to reflect about the shift to optional masking, Siegfried told the Journal that the district is “cautiously optimistic” but encouraged to see the overall decline in COVID-19 cases. And this new phase may be some “semblance of normalcy,” Siegfried said.

“I don’t know if normal exists at this point, but I think starting to get to a place where we can ease those mitigations and start to return to some of the things that people love so much about school has been really encouraging for us and just to reset,” she said.

What about daycares?

While many schools in Oak Park have transitioned to a mask optional policy, daycares and childcare centers in the village have yet to move in that direction. That’s because state officials have yet to release any guidance to follow specifically for daycare centers, says Oak Park Public Health Director Theresa Chapple-McGruder.

“Right now, we have just the really short statement that the governor made on the 25th saying this applies to daycares, too,” Chapple-McGruder told Wednesday Journal in a recent interview.

She said what people may not understand about the mask optional policies in schools is that there are still some caveats. Though staff and students can choose to wear face masks indoors, outdoors or on the school bus, they must be masked when visiting the school nurse’s office, which is considered another healthcare setting, she said. But that’s not the case with daycare centers – at least not yet, she added.

In the past, Chapple-McGruder said she received recommendations from the state to help implement safety measures for daycares. Not this time. The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services also released a similar statement to Pritzker, reiterating the lifted mask mandate and the CDC’s recent guidelines on transmission rates.

“What I do have is that the CDC is saying guidance is coming on their website. What I do have is that the state is saying we’re waiting on CDC to update their guidance, and then we will issue our guidance,” she said. 

Early this month, Chapple-McGruder continued to require masking at daycares and other mitigation efforts, including quarantine, social distancing and more.

“What we just need to do is wait for guidance, so that I can understand how to implement it in the community,” she said. “That’s where we need to be because what’s going to be extremely hard is to roll back any of this stuff.”

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