Will state lift penalty after Timothy Christian schools agree to require masking?

Elmhurst-based Timothy Christian Schools will comply with Gov. J.B. Pritzker's order for students to wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 after the Illinois State Board of Education took action to revoke recognition of the school.

But it's unclear whether the state will lift the penalty that curtails participation in ISHA sports, although Timothy officials said they're working with the state board of education to get state recognition back.

"We do not take this action lightly," ISBE State Superintendent Carmen Ayala said in a letter sent Wednesday to the school. But she said Superintendent Matt Davidson "declined to affirm" the school would follow universal masking during a discussion and that in a video, Davidson stated the school would not comply.

"ISBE must take every action possible under its authority to ensure compliance in all schools. The purpose of the universal indoor masking requirement is to ensure that all students can safely attend school in person this fall," Ayala wrote.

Timothy Christian educators issued a statement Thursday saying, "Timothy never stated that it would not comply with the universal mask requirement."

The school is "troubled by ISBE's harsh action of immediate revocation of recognition, especially because the first day of school is not until Aug. 25. Nevertheless, based on the current situation, Timothy has determined that it will follow the executive order, and see one another's unmasked faces outside.

"The school's position is that it cannot allow such significant consequences as outlined by ISBE to adversely impact its students."

Timothy Christian sent out an email Thursday evening signed by Davidson that "our ISBE recognition and its privileges will be fully restored once we update our health plan on our website" to show it's complying with the governor's mandate, "and we'll announce when it's official."

Numerous school districts had announced voluntary masking policies but reversed course after Pritzker on Aug. 4 mandated masks be worn inside schools.

With loss of recognition, graduating students' diplomas are not acknowledged by the state and schools are not allowed to participate in IHSA sports. Timothy Christian has preschool through 12th-grade classes.

In addition, both the high school and elementary schools would lose access to the Invest in Kids tax scholarship program, and middle school and elementary students would be ineligible to participate in Illinois Elementary School Association sports, according to ISBE policy.

"You declined to affirm that your schools will comply with the universal masking requirements," Ayala had told Davidson in her letter. As a result "ISBE is removing your school's status as a recognized nonpublic school, effective immediately."

"We know that consistent and correct mask use is the simplest, most effective way to keep students safely in school where they can learn and grow to their fullest potential. And masks work best when everyone wears one."

Davidson had said in the video posted Wednesday he and the school board had "taken a prayerful and very methodical approach. Our goal is to stick with the Timothy Health Plan and thus remain mask optional."

"This isn't an act of defiance, we're not puffing our chests out, we're not ramping up for some big fight," he said.

The school system would "explore this (issue) further," Davidson said in the video.

"We're going to turn over every stone. But ultimately we'll make a conclusion on the legality of the announcement by the governor, especially as a private, faith-based religious educational institution. We believe our health plan will continue to work," he said.

The ISBE's take-away was that "in a publicly disseminated video you also stated that your school will not comply with the requirements in the order," Ayala wrote.

The Centers for Disease Control and American Academy of Pediatrics are recommending masks inside to keep kids safe in schools as the highly infectious delta variant of COVID-19 is surging across the U.S.

Children ages 11 and younger are not yet eligible for vaccinations.

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