Most - but not all - District 64 candidates supported COVID-19 orders for masking and more

Nearly all the candidates running for seats on the Park Ridge-Niles District 64 school board said they supported the controversial mandates for students to wear masks and practice social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

One candidate said the board made what it thought was the best decision at the time, while another wouldn't share an opinion despite repeated requests.

Six people are competing for three 4-year terms in the April 4 election: incumbent Carolina Y. Sales and newcomers Francine D'Amico, Rachel Georgakis, Monica Milligan, Monika Penksa-Rossi and Matthew Doubleday.

Incumbent Denise Pearl and challenger Bryan Mercado are running for a 2-year term.

The candidates were asked about the district's response to the pandemic in questionnaires for the Daily Herald. COVID-related mandates were more divisive in District 64 than some other districts.

Some parents and community members implored board members to end masking rules and other policies aimed to stop the spread of the disease in schools. In September 2021, two parents who were forced to pull their three children from school because the kids hadn't quarantined after a trip abroad sued the district.

This past January, following criticism over COVID-19 mitigation efforts and other issues, Superintendent Eric Olson announced he plans to resign in June.

Pearl, the board's president, stood by the panel's decision to rely on local and state-level experts for guidance.

Pearl also said she believes the critics of the district's COVID-related policies didn't represent most of the community.

"District 64 effectively and appropriately collaborated with (Maine Township High School) District 207 and its other feeder districts when making decisions regarding COVID protocols to present a united decision for the community," said Pearl, a university affiliate instructor from Park Ridge who joined the board in 2019.

Sales, a Park Ridge attorney elected to the board in 2019, defended the board's decision to follow health guidelines. She said she supported the orders "because I prioritize the safety of the students and staff."

Doubleday, a marketing and business strategy consultant from Park Ridge, said he has supported the COVID-19 mitigation strategies recommended by state public health officials.

"The biggest lesson that we all learned is that politics and emotions make for poor public health and educational decisions," he said.

Georgakis, a school counselor who lives in Park Ridge, said following state COVID-19 orders "was the right call."

"Our school board members and administrators are not experts in infectious disease or public health and should not be tasked with making decisions they are ill-equipped to make," she said.

Milligan said she "fully supported" the board's decisions on masking and social distancing.

"I believe that we are obligated to follow data-driven, research-backed public safety orders even if (they are) inconvenient or not our preference," said Milligan, a Park Ridge resident who is the chief program officer with a nonprofit in the educational field.

Penksa-Rossi, a chiropractor from Park Ridge, also backed the state mandates, saying people must be aware of community members who have weak immune systems or other health issues.

Mercado said board members "made a decision that they thought was best at that time."

"You can agree or disagree, but the reality is that only time will tell if that decision was right or if that decision was wrong," said Mercado, a real estate broker from Park Ridge.

Mercado noted that he and his family complied with masking and social distancing orders.

D'Amico, a Park Ridge resident who works in marketing, declined to directly answer the question, saying she didn't think it was relevant to running for a school board seat.

Still, D'Amico said she thought the board worked with Olson "to provide clear guidance to the community" during the COVID-19 crisis.

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