District 21 to require masks for unvaccinated, vaccines for employees
Wheeling Township Elementary District 21 will require all employees with the exception of those with "verifiable medical exemptions" or "sincerely held religious objections" to have the COVID-19 vaccine, and all students and staff members who are unvaccinated must wear masks.
The unanimous school board vote came after eight parents spoke against a mask requirement and four parents spoke in favor of it Thursday night. Board members also received 50 or so emails on the topic, about half in favor and half against.
"Probably the only thing we can agree on is that there is disagreement. And there is no clear majority (among parents)," board member Stacy Hipsak Goetz said.
COVID-19 vaccines are available only for children 12 and older, so most of the District 21's student population is not vaccinated. The Centers from Disease Control and Prevention and the Illinois Department of Public Health recommend that unvaccinated students wear masks.
Board member Debbi McAtee pointed to the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendation that all students, teachers and staff members wear masks inside schools when classes resume, to protect unvaccinated children and reduce transmissions.
"My child being masked will not affect your child. While your child being unmasked will definitely affect mine," she said.
The board agreed with Superintendent Michael Connolly's plan that students return to full-time in-person schooling and that school sports and extracurricular activities return normally.
But the district will continue to cohort students from first through sixth grades to better manage their movements and perform contact tracing, since children 11 and under are not yet eligible for vaccination, Connolly said. Cohorts are groups of students who learn together and mostly interact only with others in their group.
Students in seventh and eighth grades will return to a more traditional middle school day with access to lockers, locker rooms and passing period for classes.
Kids spent the summer mask-less in restaurants, movie theaters and more, so it's time that school resume normally, parent Mike Prochaska said. "Leave the medical decisions where they belong -- within the individual family unit," he said.
But those decisions during a pandemic have broader impacts, board member Bill Harrison said. "Going mask-less in the current environment will impact well beyond your family," he said.
Parent Laurie Longfield, who said she's a therapist, pointed to the mental health toll of the pandemic. Longfield also said she's a member of the newly launched Northwest suburban chapter of Awake Illinois, a nonprofit organization "actively calling out any form of government overreach or constitutional violation." That includes supporting parents' rights to make decisions about vaccination, masking, testing and quarantining asymptomatic children, she said.
A staff member who is vaccinated encouraged the board to understand the reasons some of her colleagues are choosing to forgo vaccines, which have only emergency use authorization, not full approval, from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.