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Unit 5 and District 87 go mask-optional after legislative panel's vote

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For now, Unit 5’s school board meeting remains scheduled for 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, although that could “change based on information we receive (Wednesday),” the district said.
Updated: February 16, 2022 at 10:19 AM CST
This story has been updated to reflect that Unit 5 and District 87 have notified parents about the mask-optional change. And that Wednesday's special Unit 5 school board meeting has been canceled. The story also reflects the decision by ISU Lab Schools to keep the mask mandate in place.

Masks are officially optional for students and staff in Unit 5 schools, starting Wednesday, while District 87 schools will drop its mask mandate on Thursday.

Unit 5 notified its employees late Tuesday, citing the decision by a panel of lawmakers to suspend the latest version of COVID-19 mitigations for public schools. That altered a potentially slower rollback of mask rules in Unit 5 that might have stemmed from Wednesday afternoon’s school board meeting, when masks and other COVID mitigations were to be discussed.

“We were hoping to have a few days to implement any changes, but JCAR’s (Joint Committee on Administrative Rules) decision accelerated the timeline,” Unit 5 told its employees. “As a result, Unit 5 is recommending masks be worn as an important COVID mitigation, but effective immediately individuals will not be excluded if they do not wear a mask.”

Unit 5 parents and caregivers were notified just before 10 a.m. Wednesday about the change, after students began their late-start day.

“We wanted to notify staff tonight but will wait until (Wednesday) to communicate with parents, when we have more information,” the district said.

Unit 5's special school board meeting (scheduled for 4:30 p.m. Wednesday) has been canceled, a district spokesperson told WGLT.

“We know there are a lot more questions, including whether we can require testing for staff and regarding excluding close contacts. We don’t have those answers yet but will get you information as soon as it is available. For now, those items will be considered voluntary until we have more information,” Unit 5 told employees.

In a statement, Unit Five Education Association president Lindsey Dickenson said the union wished it could have been a "partner" in the district's decision-making process regarding masks. The statement noted discussions about "possible scenarios" regarding a pending court decision over Gov. JB Pritzker's mask mandate occurring as recently as late last week.

"That’s why we are so disappointed by the actions of district leadership this week," UFEA's statement read. "Reactionary decisions create uncertainty and uncertainty amplifies anxiety, creating additional challenges for our members and students. And we were disappointed we were not involved as partners in the decision-making."

UFEA members met with district administrators Wednesday afternoon, the statement continued, to discuss the adjustment to optional masking and its potential effects on students and staff.

"Educators need and want to focus on their students – not worrying about health and safety," the statement said. "We’ve been able to maintain in-person teaching and learning this year with mitigations in place, and that’s important because we know that in-person learning is the best way for our students to learn."

Earlier Wednesday, Unit 5 school board president Amy Roser said in a statement that the state has failed to provide "clear guidance" through "this period of uncertainty."

"We were put in a position where we had to act quickly," Roser said. "I understand that recent decisions bring relief to some and cause concern to others. My hope is that we can now come together as a community and respect each other and each other's choices."

Unit 5 is McLean County’s largest school district, with around 13,000 students and 1,650 employees. Many smaller districts in McLean County have already gone mask-optional, including Lexington, Heyworth, LeRoy, and El Paso-Gridley.

District 87 and Lab Schools

District 87, based in Bloomington, notified parents on Wednesday afternoon, masks would no longer be required in school.

“Upon discussing with all of our legal representatives and weighing all options, effective immediately, District 87 will highly recommend but not require masking for all students, staff and visitors while on school premises,” according to a message from Superintendent Barry Reilly.

The message noted that masking on school buses will still be required as that is a federal mandate.

The Illinois State University laboratory schools plan to keep the mask requirement in place for now as it awaits the Pritzker administration's appeal of a ruling that halted the ban.

"I have communicated with parents who are requesting masks to be optional, and I have others requesting we keep the masks required. I am working with various groups across the ISU campus to help make the appropriate decision at the appropriate time," Superintendent Barbara Meyer said in an email. Meyer noted that ISU — which the lab schools are a part of — still have the mask mandate in place.

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.

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Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.
Ryan Denham is the content director for WGLT and WCBU.
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