Masks now won't be required for unvaccinated students, staff in District 70
Masks will be strongly encouraged but not required for unvaccinated students and staff when school starts next month in Libertyville Elementary District 70.
The stance is a turnaround for Superintendent Matt Barbini, who two weeks ago said students in the district's four elementary schools, as well as unvaccinated students and staff at Highland Middle School, would be required to wear masks indoors.
Barbini said that over the past few weeks he has read and heard "some very strong opinions" on masking in schools and, after "a considerable amount of reflection and soul searching," he changed course. He said it would be difficult to enforce a mask requirement and keeping it could lead to "open conflict" in a divided community.
District officials said they don't want principals or teachers having to enforce a masking rule.
"It's a polarizing issue, and I understand that," Barbini said Monday. "We're not going to make either side happy."
The district will be require masks for all students and adults on school buses, per directives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
District 70 joins Oak Grove Elementary District 68, Grayslake High School District 127 and Arlington Heights Elementary District 25, among others, in not mandating masks.
As occurred in many communities, some District 70 parents rallied last fall for in-person learning, and the school reopening debate generated hours of public comment at school board meetings.
When students returned for the first time in November, District 70 was one of the few in Lake County with in-person learning. The district shifted to full in-person for all grades in April.
The 2021-22 school year begins Aug. 19.
Although Barbini said the district supports health authorities guidance that recommends mask wearing by unvaccinated students and staff, as a practical matter it would be difficult to enforce. Therefore, the district is strongly encouraging masks be worn rather than mandating them.
"We do need to come together as a community. We do need to heal," he said.
Layered mitigation strategies, such as voluntary symptomatic testing for students and staff and increased cleaning, disinfecting and ventilation, will continue, Barbini said. Also, a voluntary screening test also will be introduced.
The shift surprised Nicole Slobe, who has kids entering second and fourth grades. She said she's seeking a meeting with district officials on behalf of a group of concerned parents to better understand the decision.
"Let's start a conversation," she said. "We're asking for information so we can make good decisions for our kids."
She said she's been contacted by many parents about what to do next.
Details about the upcoming school year will be shared before, at and after a special board meeting scheduled for Aug. 9, according to the district.
The situation is fluid, and the district may have to pivot on various things, including masking, depending on future state directives, Barbini said.