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Unit 5 To Start School Year With Universal Masking

Jeremy DeHaai.jpg
Charlie Schlenker
Jeremy DeHaai center, was the only Unit 5 school board member to vote against a universal masking requirement to begin the school year during the board's meeting Wednesday night.

The Unit 5 school board voted 6-1 Wednesday evening to require all students, teachers, and other staff to wear masks in schools at the start of the year to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Superintendent Kristen Weikle said the district will reassess the requirement about Sept. 21, which is two weeks after students return from the Labor Day break.

That date, she said, is intentional. Throughout the pandemic, holidays have provided a greater chance for spikes in cases of COVID-19 as families travel and socialize outside their usual patterns.

The meeting at Normal Community West High School attracted about 40 people. Roughly half wore masks and half did not, an indication of how clearly divided the Bloomington-Normal area is on the question of masks and the more rigorous measures taken throughout the pandemic that have hindered personal and business activity.

“There has been a lot of thought and consideration. I’m sure some board members have had sleepless nights. I know I have as well. None of us wants to wear masks. I get it. No matter what the recommendation is, half the population in our community is going to be unhappy,” said Weikle.

The superintendent framed the decision as an "obligation and duty" to accept expert guidance.

Masking, she said, "is recommended by the CDC, the Illinois Department of Public Health, the AAP (American Academy of Pediatics), the McLean County Health Department, and local pediatricians," said Weikle, who held out the possibility that after the initial month of school and the holiday break, mask requirements might be altered if data support it.

“I would be all for that. And to me we would logically start with our high school students because they have the choice to at least be vaccinated,” said Weikle.

She said if Unit 5 does reduce mask requirements, it will be “building level decisions.”

Metrics the district would use include IDPH and McLean County Health Department (MCHD) data, possibly changing federal guidance, the status of the more contagious Delta and other variants, and data from similar school districts that have chosen to be mask optional.

Weikle said if those districts can function without large numbers of infections, it provides evidence Unit 5 can, perhaps, do so as well.

Health experts say masking reduces the risk of serious illness or death to students and their families. Weikle said there is another kind of risk in play as well.

“Our district and insurance risk management providers told us the only advisable strategy is to require masks for all, based upon the updated CDC guidance; otherwise they cannot guarantee we will be covered. That is big,” Weikle said. “I would be advising the board poorly if I said go against CDC when I know our insurance carrier is saying you may be at risk and not be covered. I don’t think that would be smart with taxpayer money at all.”

Board member Jeremy DeHaai was the lone "no" vote, saying wearing a mask should be a personal or family choice. He called on the district to come up with specific metrics that will result in the end of the mask requirement, and to be transparent about those.

“The vaccine was hope for a lot of people. My son got it because he would be able to go to school in the fall and not wear a mask and now he’s looking at not being able to do that and it’s frustrating,” said DeHaai. “Where does it all end? There’s no end in sight and we have to give people hope.”

Unit 5 also will have a new voluntary program in place where students can be tested weekly, using a saliva-based PCR test developed by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The testing program, overseen by SHIELD Illinois, produces results within 24 hours. Students who participate will not need to quarantine if they are identified as a close contact.

That means a student could return to school within 24 hours if they take part in the testing, Weikle previously said.

Public comment

Public comment at Wednesday's meeting covered the several issues in play: public good, personal liberties, the varying severity of COVID-19 among different age groups, the fact that in-person education is better for children’s learning, child emotional well-being, and the impact on families.

Erin Easter told her family’s story that encapsulates most of those. One of her three children went to a private school last year because it had in-person learning. She wore a mask all year and there were no COVID cases in that school, she said.

“Academically, she flourished with the consistency. Socially she had near-normal interactions. She was the most normal one out of our family this year because she did get to go to school every day and see her peers,” said Easter.

Another of Easter’s children was a part of an 18-student outbreak at a Unit 5 school this spring, she said.

“My spouse got it and while it was not as bad for my son, it was severe for him. Given that scenario, I do not want to go through that with our children again and I think masking is the best way we can keep them safe in the current transmission environment,” said Easter.

Other commenters framed the mask issue in dramatic terms. Former Normal City Council candidate Karl Sila appeared to make a veiled Holocaust reference.

“Back then, people were told to wear a piece of cloth to show solidarity. Back then it was an arm band. Today it’s a mask. In both cases, people said wearers are good people and non-wearers are bad people,” said Sila. “People in the 20th century said it can’t happen here. I’m sure that’s what you’re saying now. There’s a 10-step process toward genocide. We don’t want to continue that march toward step 10."

All board members noted it was an extremely difficult decision.

School Board President Amy Roser said it is not just the welfare of students at risk, but that of the community at large.

“How horrible would it be if you brought home the virus that then impacted your parent. That’s a really hard thing to live with and I’ m not sure as a board member that I could live with that as a situation,” she said.

Roser said McLean County data from last week tells her it is not the time to go without masks. She said the age group under 17 had the highest number of cases of any age group. And she noted the youngest part of the group (under 12) does not have the option to get a vaccine.

And in spite of the divided and divisive opinion about masks, Roser hopes everyone can move forward as a community.

“It will take us to act together as a community in order to get this to change so we can remove these masks,” she said.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.