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Unit 5 School Board Expected to Make Mask Decision Next Week

Michele Steinbacher
Unit 5 parent Danielle Renee speaks against requiring masks in schools at the Unit 5 school board meeting on Wednesday, July 21, 2021, at Normal Community West High School.

To mask or not to mask, that remains the question for the Unit 5 school board.

At Wednesday night’s meeting, Superintendent Kristen Weikle announced the board likely will decide pandemic-related mask rules for schools during a special meeting on July 28 at the Normal West Community High School cafeteria.

“Everyone’s anxious, I know. But we do have a month before school, and I want to be able to give the board the most accurate up-to-date information before your decision,” said Weikle.

She’ll bring the pros and cons of masks to that meeting, she said, adding the district currently is following Centers for Disease Control recommendations. As of Wednesday, the COVID-19 vaccine only is available to people 12 and older.

With less than a dozen students applying for special-permission remote learning this year, Weikle said Unit 5 is planning for a return to a normal school year as much as possible.

“Almost all kids will be in-person, five days a week, regular school hours,” she said, adding the district still will have some COVID mitigation procedures in place. Nearly 9 out of 10 Unit 5 staff are fully vaccinated, she said.

Though the mask question hasn’t been resolved, other plans are taking shape.

A new voluntary program will allow Unit 5 students to be tested at a weekly screening — using a saliva-based test developed by the University of Illinois Urbana-Chamaign. The testing program, overseen by SHIELD Illinois, produces results within 24 hours. That would allow students to skip any quarantine requirements if they are in close contact with a positive COVID case, Weikle said.

This means students could return to school within 24 hours of COVID-like symptoms if they take part in the testing, she said.

The district also will continue to help the McLean County Health Department with contact tracing.

Weikle said part of the $6 million in federal COVID-relief was spent on a new ventilation system, shown to reduce the spread and infection rates of the coronavirus. The change will be complete by fall semester’s start, she said.

The COVID pandemic shut schools in March 2020 and disrupted the 2020-2021 school year. Vaccines now are widely available for people 12 and older. However, the Delta variant of the virus is rapidly spreading across the globe, complicating decisions for school boards and other governing bodies.

Unit 5 families no longer will have to complete a daily confirmation of student being clear of symptoms. Still, families are encouraged to keep kids home if they have COVID symptoms, Weikle said.

Although the district hasn’t yet announced a decision on whether some, or all students, must wear masks this year, Weikle said CDC requirements for public transportation mean all bus riders must wear masks.

Weikle said although the COVID vaccine is not required for the 2021-2022 school year, other immunizations are. She urged parents to make sure all vaccines offered by the Illinois Department of Health are up to date by the first day of school. If not, students won’t be permitted to attend until they are vaccinated, she said.

Public comments focus on masks

Nearly a dozen people spoke during public comments at Wednesday's meeting, with the majority speaking against children wearing masks in school.

Among them was Christina Faulkner, who said many parents are frustrated that while many U.S. school districts are choosing a mask-optional scenario for the school year, Unit 5 hasn’t done the same. Faulkner said requiring masks for students brings “heartache and health risks.”

Kari Donoho, a Heartland Community college math professor, told the board masks are not a good idea. In reducing the spread of COVID, masks are “unproven conjecture, at best.” She, like several others, recommended the board make masks optional and leave it up to each family.

One speaker, Dana Niswonger, a scientist working in biofuels, said she’s glad in-person learning is returning. But she asked the board to require masks, saying it takes a village to tackle COVID.

“Schools are the community nexus,” she said. The students bring it home to parents, who spread to co-workers, and continue the cycle, she said.

Other commenters included Courtney Marks, who represents Unit 5’s E3 group. She said despite recent comments opposed to Unit 5’s attention to diversity, her group will not stop focusing on improving equity in fair student discipline, diverse hiring, and improving minority academic achievement.

NCHS football field named for Dick Tharp

In another matter, the school board voted to name the Normal Community High School football field in honor of longtime coach Dick Tharp.

Prior to the vote, a required public hearing brought speakers praising Tharp’s teaching style and importance to Unit 5’s history. They included Tharp’s grandson, Ken Frost, and former student and current NCHS teacher Mike Goodwin.

“NCHS has one of the most successful programs in state history and much of it's due to him," Goodwin told the board, noting Tharp took Normal’s football team to several playoffs.

A dedication is planned this fall. Tharp, 90, retired to Louisiana.

He taught and coached at Normal High School, then the district’s only high school, from 1968 to 1988 and earned 158 wins — the most in Unit 5 history.

Unit 5 spokeswoman Dayna Brown told the board no district funds would be used for sign changes, or other related matters. Instead private donations will cover the cost, she said.

In other business, the council:

  • Heard a report from First Student that the bus company has enough drivers for the school year, and is preparing for full in-person attendance. Nick Sorey told the board, despite a national trend of driver shortages, First Student is fully-staffed for Unit 5. However, the company is still hiring, he added.
  • Learned some federal COVID-relief funding will add more after-school tutoring, more family coordinators, and more PPE in the district.
  • Recognized the boys track team, for placing third among 3A schools at state competition. Team member Leslie Fisher placed 1st in the triple jump, with a leap of 14.67 meters.
  • Approved student handbooks for the upcoming school year.
  • Approved the school calendar for 2021-2022.
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Michele Steinbacher is a WGLT correspondent. She joined the staff in 2020.
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