Dozens of Naperville Central students stage maskless protest against district mandate
Dozens of Naperville Central High School students staged a maskless "walk-in" Wednesday morning to protest the mask mandate in Naperville Unit District 203.
Blocked by staff members from entering classrooms without a mask, the students said they first gathered in the cafeteria before being led into the auditorium. The students said about 60 of them were part of the initial group, but additional students joined them during the first couple of periods of the day.
The protest was in reaction to district officials keeping a mask requirement in place, despite last week's court ruling against the mandate issued by Gov. J.B. Pritzker. Officials from Naperville 203 -- one of more than 140 school districts named as a defendant in the lawsuit -- said they'll adhere to the judge's order only for the specific plaintiffs listed in the lawsuit.
"My parents know what I'm doing, and they're very supportive," said Naperville Central junior Juliana Russo. "This is violating my rights to make a choice on this. They think it's good that I'm standing up for myself."
Students and parents said school officials told them Wednesday would be considered an unexcused absence for students who remained maskless in the auditorium and did not go home. They had the option of performing school work online, but the day still would be considered an unexcused absence.
According to students who remained in the auditorium until the end of the school day, most students went home early after their parents called in an absence, avoiding being unexcused.
Alex Mayster, District 203's executive director of communications, says 99% of the district's nearly 17,000 students are complying with the masking policy at its schools. Naperville Central's enrollment is about 2,700 students.
Mayster said the district maintains the right to refuse student access to schools due to issues with mask compliance. But he said officials first provide opportunities for compliance and discuss options with students and parents before limiting access to the building.
"Since masking requirements are due to health and safety concerns, students who refuse to comply after being provided with resources and opportunities to comply will be sent home or remain in school," Mayster said in an email on Tuesday. "Students will remain in a designated area that is removed from the general student population."
The students gathered together before school started at 9 a.m. Wednesday. Some students said they were told they couldn't enter the building without wearing a mask.
Students said they put on masks to enter the building but removed them once they were inside.
Mayster said Wednesday the staff members were in the hallways to maintain traffic flow not only for the protesters but also because of students lingering to watch.
"There were teachers standing, kind of staggered like a barricade, and we just all went to the cafeteria," said Naperville Central senior Jess Elyea, who was one of the protesters with her sister Lorelei, a sophomore. "We were all just sitting there talking, and they made us all move to the auditorium. And all the hallways were lined with teachers who wouldn't let us go anywhere but the auditorium."