How educators are trying to keep bullying at bay in mask-optional school districts

  • At the Northwest Suburban High School District 214 administration headquarters within the Forest View Education Center in Arlington Heights, masks are optional, but recommended, after a Feb. 4 court decision.

      At the Northwest Suburban High School District 214 administration headquarters within the Forest View Education Center in Arlington Heights, masks are optional, but recommended, after a Feb. 4 court decision. Christopher Placek | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 2/14/2022 6:22 AM

Attend any of the suburban school board meetings in the wake of last weekend's downstate court ruling on masking in schools, and parents on either side of the debate likely would agree: The tension in boardrooms, school hallways and classrooms is palpable.

They also seemingly agree there's been bullying in their kids' schools. But who was bullying or being bullied varied, depending on with whom you spoke.

 

"Moving from mask mandates to mask-optional overnight created a tense atmosphere in our schools," said Ioana Fernandez, one of dozens of parents to speak at the Elmhurst Unit District 205 meeting Tuesday night. "Many students who choose to wear masks are being bullied and pressured to remove them by their non-mask-wearing peers."

Two nights later, in Northwest Suburban High School District 214, more parents took to the podium.

"This week we've seen students being segregated. We've seen students being bullied by their peers. I'll be honest -- it's probably happening on both sides," said Kathy Murschel, an Arlington Heights parent. "We have reports of teachers giving special privileges to specific students, and shaming and guilting others for their personal choices when for many years, we've been told that everyone belongs, regardless of their beliefs."

These and other suburban school districts -- which were among the more than 140 districts named in the downstate lawsuit and now have mask-optional-but-recommended policies -- are battlegrounds in the latest school pandemic controversy involving some students wearing masks, and some who aren't. And, the two sides don't always get along.

But school leaders say they've tried to reinforce positive messages to head off any issues. And, they believe, in most cases, it's working.

"The principal-teachers' messages were more about the kindness, the respect, the personal decisions, things not being political in nature. And I think it worked out really well -- the vast majority of cases," said District 214 Superintendent David Schuler. "We had some one-offs, as I'm sure everybody did, and we've addressed those on a case-by-case basis. But the overall tenor and feel really has been positive."

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Meeting with about a dozen students from across District 214 high schools before the school board meeting Thursday, Schuler said two students reported seeing incidents that weren't "kind and respectful." But the students also said that after Monday -- the first day of the mask-optional policy -- more and more students began to wear masks.

By the end of the week, Schuler estimated mask wearing was 70% to 80% across district high schools.

"They said when they go into a class, they may or may not wear a mask, just based on what others are doing, but they always put them on when they're walking the halls," Schuler said.

In neighboring Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211, principals delivered Monday morning announcements stressing the importance of treating students and staff members with kindness and respect for individual preferences.

But by second period, a student at Fremd High School in Palatine reportedly threatened a classmate with a knife over the mask issue. A woman later told the Daily Herald her daughter believed she'd been targeted for not wearing a mask.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Palatine police said the knife-wielding student was arrested and will face charges.

After the confrontation at Fremd, District 211 spokeswoman Erin Holmes said principals throughout the district continued to reiterate positive messages throughout the week.

"Respect is a core value within our District 211 schools, and principals asked that all demonstrate that trait when working with peers, whether or not they are wearing a mask," Holmes said.

How those messages are shared with the student body can vary depending on the grade and age group.

In Barrington Area Unit District 220, which has a high school, two middle school campuses, eight elementary buildings and an early childhood center, officials provided teachers with talking points, lessons, videos, books and websites to use in the classroom. Used in every grade level they "re-emphasize the importance of respect, empathy and acceptance," said district spokeswoman Samantha Ptashkin.

Back at the District 214 meeting Thursday night, parent Deb McCall of Arlington Heights said she's heard students talk about "awfulness" happening in schools, including name calling. But she thanked her daughter's principal at Hersey High School, Keir Rogers, for his message to students.

"Our principal did a great job telling these kids, 'Let's be kind, let's be compassionate,'" McCall said. "And I really truly believe the majority of the people want that."

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