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Unit 5 superintendent will propose masks be 'recommended but not required'

Elementary school students in face masks board the school bus after in-person classes in Wheeling, Ill., Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020. Several Illinois schools will go to virtual remote learning after Thanksgiving weekend as COVID-19 cases soar. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Nam Y. Huh/AP
Unit 5’s school board has scheduled a special meeting for Wednesday afternoon. Superintendent Kristen Weikle will propose making masks optional.

In an email sent to staff Tuesday afternoon, Unit 5 superintendent Kristen Weikle said she will propose changes to the district's COVID prevention plan, including ending the mask mandate.

The school board will hear the proposal during a special meeting called for Wednesday afternoon. In her email, Weikle said the board will likely amend the district's COVID procedure. If approved, masks would then be "recommended but not required" for students, staff, and visitors. If approved, changes to COVID procedure will go into effect the week of Feb. 21.

"I know this will raise questions," Weikle wrote to Unit 5 employees. "I will be meeting with the unions regarding potential changes and will continue to share information as it is available. I appreciate all that you have done to serve students over the past two years, as I know that the pandemic has created challenges for everyone. Thank you again for your tremendous efforts."

The meeting is set for 4:30 p.m. Wednesday at Normal West high school. The meeting’s agenda calls for action on the district’s COVID-19 prevention policy involving students. That policy includes the face-covering requirement, which cites “significant evidence that face coverings provide protection and decrease the spread of COVID-19.” It also includes rules related to symptom screenings, social distancing, cleaning, and other COVID prevention measures.

The meeting was announced Monday afternoon. The Unit Five Education Association (UFEA) teachers’ union said then it was expecting a vote on whether to go mask-optional, as some other districts have done in the wake of a Springfield judge’s ruling to void the school mask mandate. The judge’s temporarily block on masking applied to the nearly 170 school districts that were party to the lawsuit. It’s unclear if the order also applies to districts that were not part of the lawsuit, such as Unit 5 and District 87. As recently as last week, Unit 5’s lawyer was advising the district to keep requiring masks until an appellate court weighed in.

Unit 5 is McLean County’s largest school district, with around 13,000 students and 1,650 employees.

JCAR ruling against mask mandate

Adding to the uncertainty was Tuesday's decision by the Joint Committee of Administrative Rules (JCAR) against extending the Pritzker administration's school mask mandate rule.

The vote by JCAR means that, for the time being, there is no state mandate on mitigation measures for public or private K-12 schools.

Gov. JB Pritzker’s administration, however, continues to encourage masking in schools.

“The administration understands that members of the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules are awaiting a ruling from the appellate court on this issue,” Pritzker’s press secretary Jordan Abudayyeh said in an email statement.

“As doctors have said time and again, masks are the best way to preserve in-person learning and keep children and staff safe,” she added. “We look forward to continuing to work with members of the General Assembly, school districts, parents, communities and all stakeholders to use the tools we have to keep in-person learning. In the meantime, the administration urges all schools and parents to encourage mask-wearing to keep everyone in their schools and communities safe.”

Republicans, however, said the Illinois Department of Public Health's action showed a lack of respect for the judicial branch, and they criticized Pritzker for not working with lawmakers on mitigation strategies.

“In his quest for power at all costs, the governor attempted to go above the judicial system to continue to require masks in schools, a move that even his Democrat allies in the legislature wouldn’t support,” Senate Republican Leader Dan McConchie, of Hawthorn Woods, said in a statement. “Even they agree he has gone too far.”

District 87 and other districts

Central Illinois educators were trying to figure out the impact of the JCAR vote and where to go next. (Many smaller districts in McLean County have already gone mask-optional, including Lexington, Heyworth, LeRoy, and El Paso-Gridley.)

The Bloomington-based District 87 does not "currently have a special board meeting scheduled regarding masks for our students and staff," said Superintendent Barry Reilly.

"I anticipate whether or not we do need to schedule one prior to our March 9 meeting will become clear in the next couple of days," Reilly told WGLT on Tuesday night.

Mark Jontry, the regional superintendent of schools for McLean, DeWitt, Livingston, and Logan counties, said he was seeking guidance from the State Board of Education.

"I would think it will cause some districts who are currently maintaining the mandate but considering a transition to optional (to move) in that direction a little sooner," Jontry told WGLT.

COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have dropped sharply in McLean County in recent weeks, following the deadly omicron surge. Unit 5 schools saw a more than 50% drop in weekly coronavirus cases last week, though the vaccination rate for children ages 5 to 11 remains low (just 24%) in McLean County.

Seeing a similar decline, several other states have recently announced a lifting of mask mandates in schools. That will open Feb. 28 in Connecticut, March 7 in New Jersey, and March 31 in Oregon and Delaware. Illinois will lift its mask mandate for most indoor spaces on Feb. 28, but that doesn’t apply to schools.

Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
Sarah Nardi is a correspondent at WGLT. She rejoined the station in 2024.