Mask-optional schools in suburbs reverse course, say they'll obey governor's mandate
Suburban school districts that had made face coverings optional for their students and employees backtracked Wednesday, saying they won't defy Gov. J.B. Pritzker's statewide mask mandate.
In recent weeks, some districts approved their own mask rules, but others opted for voluntary masking, contradicting new federal guidance advising everyone in schools to wear masks regardless of vaccination status.
It took Pritzker's directive on Wednesday for those districts to change course and reinstate universal masking in schools.
Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200, Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211, Northwest Suburban High School District 214, Barrington Unit District 220 and St. Charles Unit District 303 were among those to announce they'll follow Pritzker's order.
The reversal comes as the highly contagious delta variant fuels an uptick in COVID-19 cases, especially among the unvaccinated.
In issuing the mandate, Pritzker cited lower vaccination rates among teens and the patchwork approach to masking in schools.
In DuPage County, for example, only 49% of 12- to 17-year-olds are fully vaccinated, the local health department said. Statewide, 224,130 kids 12 to 15 are fully vaccinated out of 659,053 in that demographic, or 34%, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. Children under the age of 12 are not yet approved for the shots.
"I had hoped that a state mask requirement in schools wouldn't be necessary, but it is," Pritzker said.
Palatine-Schaumburg District 211 -- the largest high school district in the state with nearly 12,000 students in five high schools and two alternative schools -- adopted an optional mask policy last month.
But after the governor's mask mandate, District 211 officials said they'll adhere to the order. The district also canceled a special school board meeting that had been scheduled for Thursday night to discuss IDPH masking guidance, with the governor's directive superseding the recommendations.
"As an Illinois public school system, we will be following Gov. Pritzker's mandate requiring masks for all students, teachers and staff inside prekindergarten through 12th-grade school buildings across the state," district spokeswoman Erin Holmes said. "We look forward to welcoming students back for in-person learning next week."
Northwest Suburban High School District 214 officials said they also will follow the mandate. The directive comes less than a week after a school board meeting where members endorsed Superintendent David Schuler's recommendation -- not requirement -- that all teachers, staff, students and visitors, vaccinated or not, wear masks in schools.
A district spokeswoman said Wednesday afternoon that officials are waiting for Pritzker's full written executive order "to ensure we are in compliance." The first day of school is next Wednesday, Aug. 11.
In Arlington Heights Elementary District 25 -- among the suburban districts with many vocal proponents and opponents of masking, and associated petitions and counterpetitions -- Superintendent Lori Bein said Wednesday afternoon the mask mandate begins immediately for anyone who comes inside a district building.
Bein emphasized at the July 15 school board meeting -- where members voted to allow parents to decide whether to send their kids to school with or without masks -- that the district would need to be flexible in case health department guidance changes.
"That flexibility needs to be put in practice today," Bein wrote in a letter to parents announcing the new mask rules.
"This summer I have heard from and met with individuals representing many different viewpoints on masking in our schools and I want you to know that I have heard your concerns and feedback," Bein wrote. "Today's Executive Order, however, clearly states that masks are now required to be worn by anyone that enters one of our buildings as it is the safest way for our students and staff to return to full, in-person learning, 5 days a week."
Bein will provide more details about what the upcoming school year will look like -- addressing topics such as school lunch, recess, extracurriculars, quarantine procedures and quarantine learning -- ahead of the first day of school on Aug. 19.
In a joint statement, District 200 school board members said the order takes effect immediately. Earlier, board members said in a letter to families that they had received more than 700 emails on the subject of COVID-19 mitigations.
"Together, we have worked through the challenges of the numerous changes that have occurred over the last 18 months and we will continue to do so," the board said.
The superintendent of one suburban school district, Indian Prairie Unit District 204, said Wednesday only that the district will evaluate the governor's order.
"Indian Prairie School District 204 will evaluate how this mandate impacts our mitigation efforts and fall plans," Adrian B. Talley said in an emailed message to parents and students. "We will incorporate this new information into our update for the board of education meeting on Monday, August 9."