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Unit 5's continued mask mandate draws ire of crowd at school board meeting

A crowd waits for the Unit 5 school board meeting to begin Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022, in the Normal West Community High School auditorium.
Michele Steinbacher
A crowd waits for the Unit 5 school board meeting to begin Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022, in the Normal Community West High School auditorium.

Unit 5’s continued adherence to the state’s COVID-related mask mandate brought a crowd of protesters to Wednesday night’s school board meeting.

Nearly two dozen speakers aired frustrations during public comments, while a sign-waving crowd applauded from their seats in the Normal Community West High School auditorium. The board spent nearly two hours on the mask issue, as more Illinois districts lift the requirement after a court ruling late last week that blocked the mandate.

Also Wednesday, the board voted unanimously to issue $46 million in bonds as a way to tackle Unit 5’s structural deficit over the next three years. Even with the bonds, the district still needs $8 million more to maintain current services.

A special board meeting on March 2 will look at ways to close that gap.

Ruling spurs conversation

On Friday, a Sangamon County judge temporarily blocked the mask mandate in 140 school districts, a ruling that was cited by nearly all of the mask opponents at Wednesday's meeting.

But Unit 5 attorney Curt Richardson said because Unit 5 wasn’t a party in that lawsuit, state law still requires that the district follow Gov. JB Pritzker's executive order and the emergency rules.

The state has appealed the ruling, with a decision expected late next week, he said. “We’ve got to wait and see what the appellate court does,” Richardson told the board.

Meanwhile, about 100 other Illinois school districts not named in the lawsuit have taken the opposite approach by making masks optional starting this week.

Unit 5 board member Jeremy DeHaai said he’d like the board to follow the same course.

“It really comes down to a decision by us (the board): what do we want to do at this point?” said DeHaai of ending the mask requirement. “Anything we can do to do that sooner than later, I want to do that.”

Superintendent Kristen Weikle said she understood people’s desire to remove the mask mandate. But in her professional role, she has to think about how to best protect the district.

Among public speakers criticizing Unit 5 for its mask mandate and other COVID mitigations were many Unit 5 teachers, as well as several parents, and students. Two Unit 5 teens — Keagan Wurth and K.J. Sniff — told the board they’d made a decision to not wear masks this week, and were sent home. Two younger students also spoke to the board, saying they opposed masks.

“You can’t even monitor this in Unit 5,” said teacher Duane Thoennes, who criticized a policy he said is not allowed to be questioned, but which is impossible to consistently maintain. He pointed out that hundreds of students eat lunch together mask less, and numerous children pull their masks down.

Mollie Emery, a Unit 5 parent who is a substitute school nurse, also lamented the district’s inaction after neighboring central Illinois districts have dropped the mask mandate.

“The opportunity exists now to do what is right,” she said.

Emery also said it seemed obvious to her that the many districts opting to challenge the mandate now were behind Pritzker’s Wednesday announcement that he’d be easing the public mask mandates. Beginning in March, masks only will be required in schools, medical settings, and on public transit systems.

“It feels like you guys are tone deaf to what the community wants,” said commenter Lindsay Mitchell.

Although many central Illinois school districts opted to lift the mandate this week, Unit 5 isn’t an outlier: About 70% of the state’s 800-plus school districts continue to follow the state’s school-masking rules, including Bloomington District 87.

Nearing 10 p.m., as the meeting was set to adjourn, board president Amy Roser said she heard pain and frustration from the public comments, and she wanted district residents to know she and the board do want to end the use of masks as soon as it is legally possible.

“I hear and feel your frustration,” said Roser. “But my question is how are we going to heal after all this,” describing her worries and concerns about how divisive public discourse has become in the past few years.

Of the night’s 21 public commenters, the majority voiced frustration and disappointment in the board’s decision to wait out the case.

Only one commenter spoke in favor of continuing masks in Unit 5 schools. But board member Kelly Pyle pointed out the board had received numerous emails, phone calls and social media outreach from district families that also support the district’s current COVID mitigation policies.

Bonds issued

Before the board voted Wednesday to issue up to $46 million in general obligation bonds, district finance chief Marty Hickman presented a five-year financial outlook.

He showed charts detailing how local property taxes collected continue to be Unit 5’s main revenue source. The district’s main goal in the next five years is to increase revenues and decrease expenses, he said.

Board members said cuts alone won’t solve the district’s budget crisis.

More revenue is needed, too, agreed board member Alan Kalitzky.

Board member Barry Hitchins said district residents should prepare for challenging and uncomfortable decisions on how to balance the budget. As a service industry, a local school district’s cuts will translate to eliminating staff positions and school programming.

Roser said while mask-wearing requirements were a hot topic during Wednesday’s public comments, she hopes the public also will take interest in the special meeting focusing on district finances.

In other business, the board, approved:

  • Next year’s academic calendar, eliminating a dozen late-start Wednesdays and replacing those with seven half-days for district staff to have professional development. 
  • Hiring a consulting service. The $70,000 contract with E.O. Sullivan Consulting is intended for community engagement services, and to help determine a referendum recommendation.
  • Spending about $55,000 from fire prevention and safety funds, for improvements at Fox Creek Elementary School.

Michele Steinbacher was a WGLT correspondent, joining the staff in 2020. She left the station in 2024.