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Unit 5 apologizes for sudden rollout of mask-optional policy in schools

Kristen Weikle
“We recognize that this decision happened without our typical advanced notice. I'd like to take this opportunity to explain our rationale and evolution of factors that led to the decision,” Unit 5 Superintendent Kristen Weikle said in an email to parents Thursday.

Unit 5’s superintendent apologized to district families Thursday for the abrupt rollout of its mask-optional policy – a change that went into effect before parents and caregivers were notified.

It’s been a whirlwind month for educators, administrators, students, and their families, following a Springfield judge’s ruling that voided the mask mandate for at least 170 districts around the state. Some districts not involved in the litigation used that judge’s Feb. 4 order to go mask-optional too. Other districts, like Unit 5 and District 87, chose to keep their mask mandates until an appellate court weighed in.

Unit 5’s position began to change. On Tuesday afternoon, Superintendent Kristen Weikle said she was recommending the school board approve a mask-optional change, something it intended to do at a special board meeting Wednesday afternoon. But a few hours later, a legislative panel voted to suspend the latest version of COVID-19 mitigations for all public schools.

Late Tuesday night, Unit 5 employees were notified schools would be mask-optional starting Wednesday morning. But parents and caregivers were not notified until around 10 a.m. Wednesday, after the late-start school day began. That irked some families. The district’s teachers’ union said it was “disappointed by the district leadership’s actions this week,” saying that “reactionary decisions create uncertainty.”

“We recognize that this decision happened without our typical advanced notice. I'd like to take this opportunity to explain our rationale and evolution of factors that led to the decision,” Weikle said in an email to parents Thursday. “We apologize for any issues this may have caused.”

Weikle’s message to parents includes a timeline of events. It also included this information:

PPE for students: Our schools have PPE available for students and staff. Masks, face shields, desk shields, and individual hand sanitizer are all available for anyone who needs them. Parents can request these for their child by contacting the school office.

Requests from parents about masking and grouping/seating of students: Staff cannot ensure that a child is or is not wearing a mask. We will ask families to make a decision with their child about whether or not to wear a mask and handle explaining that to their child. Requests for staff to provide modified grouping or seating for students will not be provided unless a student requires medical accommodations.

Request to wear masks: We have some staff members who may request that students or visitors wear masks in their classroom due to a variety of reasons, including an underlying health condition. This would be optional, as no student will be required to wear a mask. It is our expectation these requests will be handled in a respectful manner.

Respect for others: Students and families should respect one another's decision regarding masks. Harassment, bullying or aggressive behaviors are unacceptable. If a student or family feels there have been incidents of harassment, bullying, or aggression related to masks they should report it to their teacher and/or building principal. A concern resolution form is also available by contacting the school office.

Other mitigations: Unit 5 will continue to offer other COVID mitigation strategies, including voluntary weekly COVID screening for students and staff, providing masks, providing table/desk shields, teaching and reminding students of handwashing and respiratory etiquette, and advising individuals to stay home when sick.

Requests for remote learning: Remote instruction is only available to those who are medically eligible. Instruction will be provided through an online platform. This form should be completed by your child's physician and dropped off at the district office or emailed to district@unit5.org. It should be noted that a child receiving remote instruction for medical reasons is not eligible to attend any in-person activities including extra-curricular activities, athletics, and all-school events.

COVID Symptoms: Testing is still recommended for individuals exhibiting symptoms. Testing is available in the nurse's office for individuals with symptoms or through any local testing facility. Traditional exclusion protocols in the handbook will be followed (i.e.-fever, vomiting, or diarrhea within the last 24 hours; frequent or disruptive cough; or pronounced lethargy/fatigue that interferes with participation in learning)

Voluntary Shield Testing: Any student who is not already signed up and would like to participate in weekly testing can sign up here. Sign up will close at 9 am on Monday, Feb. 21. New signups will be eligible to test beginning the week of Feb. 28.

Dashboard information: Unit 5 continues to monitor COVID in its schools. To see a school-by-school breakdown of positive and newly quarantined cases for students and staff members, go to the District website. The information will be updated weekly, by 10 pm, Sunday evening.

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

The smaller Bloomington-based District 87 planned to go mask-optional starting Thursday, which ended up being a snow day. Unit 5 was on a remote-learning day Thursday.

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
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