'This is a call to action': Angry parents, students vent at District 203 leaders over mask mandate

  • Some parents and students are upset about a decision by Naperville Unit District 203 officials to keep a mask mandate in place for schools.

      Some parents and students are upset about a decision by Naperville Unit District 203 officials to keep a mask mandate in place for schools. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 2/8/2022 6:39 PM

Angry parents and students filled the Naperville Unit District 203 school board meeting room Monday night to protest the decision by officials to keep a school mask mandate in place despite a judge's ruling against the mandate.

Tensions ran high throughout the meeting at Washington Junior High that lasted nearly three hours and had multiple recesses because some attendees refused to wear masks and disrupted the proceedings.

 

Thirty-eight people -- most of them against the mask mandate -- spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting. Not only was the meeting room filled, but the school had to provide overflow rooms.

Brooke Sawatzky, a sophomore at Naperville Central High School, said she went to school Monday without a mask and was separated with other maskless students into a conference room, and later a testing room, to participate in online learning before being sent home at about 10 a.m.

Her sister Taylor, a junior at Naperville Central, listed a number of surrounding school districts that made masks optional on Monday and questioned why District 203 didn't.

"Can you tell me what the difference is between our Naperville bubble and schools that are just miles away that are giving students their rights?" she said.

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Naperville District 203 was one of more than 140 school districts named as a defendant in a lawsuit aiming to end the state mask mandate for schools imposed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker. But because of uncertainty surrounding last week's temporary restraining order, the district's legal counsel advised adhering to the ruling only for the specific plaintiffs listed in the lawsuit.

Before public comments began Monday, Superintendent Dan Bridges explained the district's point of view.

"It is frustrating to many of us that we are in such a divisive time," he said. "None of us want this and we do intend to continue to work to unify our community and to rebuild trust with those who now question it.

"The ingredient that is missing, and that we intend to become even more engaged with than we have, is to work toward understanding what an off-ramp to these mitigations will be or when we will have the discretion to begin safely peeling layers of mitigation away," Bridges said. "Let me be clear. I do not, and this board does not, want to see our students and our staff to be masked indefinitely."

Bridges' comments failed to sway most of the people at the meeting.

"I have no hope of getting the administration or school board to even acknowledge another perspective than their own," said Jena McKinnon, whose fifth-grade son, Chase, spoke about being sent to the office for not wearing a mask Monday at Maplebrook Elementary School. "They have tunnel vision, and they are unwilling to pivot when they have been proven wrong.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"This is a call to action," McKinnon said. "Our school district is violating the rights of our children."

A handful of people spoke up in defense of the school board and the mask mandate, each time being interrupted by shouts from the crowd and a call from board President Kristin Fitzgerald to maintain order.

"The actual majority of families out there know that for the past 23 months, you have had our back," Tim Thompson said. "You've kept our kids safe. You've kept schools running during an unprecedented event."

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