District 59 meeting heats up as audience demands masks be optional
A mask mandate for students remains in place at Elk Grove Township Elementary District 59, after a heated discussion Monday night in which angry audience members shouted at the school board, trying to convince them the schools should be mask-optional.
Eventually, an irritated school board President Randy Reid banged his gavel and declared, "I'm calling a recess."
The school district decided to keep the mandate in place despite a temporary restraining order issued by a Sangamon County judge Feb. 4 that blocks schools from enforcing Gov. J.B. Pritzker's mask mandate. District 59 is among several suburban districts keeping masks mandatory while awaiting an appellate court ruling that could come this week.
The decision to stay masked did not sit well with many in the audience at Monday's school board meeting. Parents of students said their children are being hurt socially, emotionally and academically.
"Our kids barely know what their teachers look like," said audience member and substitute teacher Peggy Walter.
Some parents and students said it is hard for students to breathe in gym class with masks on. "It is up to us to give them a sense of safety and we're letting them down," Walter added.
"We are deeply concerned about the well-being and education of our kids," said Marta Purschke.
"The moment you lost me was when District 59 decided to willingly disregard the law," added Ellen Wetzel, arguing that the downstate judge's order makes it illegal for schools to require masks. Technically, while the temporary restraining order prevents enforcement of the Pritzker mask mandate in schools, it does not prevent schools from enforcing their own rules.
Audience member Angela Fabiano said fear has been allowed to dictate lives.
"Fear has turned friends into enemies. Fear has diminished a child's self confidence into complete mush," she said.
Others in the audience said it isn't fair that some local districts, like Northwest Suburban High School District 214, have made masks optional in the wake of the downstate judge's ruling.
Meanwhile, parent Fay Costa said she is concerned it could be unsafe for students and teachers to unmask now.
"This pandemic may be winding down, but it's not quite over," said Costa, who added her daughter does not have difficulty breathing when she competes in park district sports with a mask.
In response to shouts from the audience as board members discussed the issue among themselves, Reid threatened a couple of times to shut down debate. Eventually, after more than an hour of debate and no letup to the interruptions, he called a recess.
Board members urged patience, at least until the appellate court has ruled.
"I am concerned about telling our kids you can unmask tomorrow, and having a court overturn that decision and have to tell our kids, 'You're putting that mask back on,'" Courtney Lang said.
Robert Mancilla said he wants to wait a few days to see if the order is confirmed or reversed.
"I am trying to keep schools open. I am trying to keep schools safe and I'm trying to avoid disruption and confusion," he said.
Board members agreed to hold a virtual meeting, probably next week, after the appellate court decision is released.
Ben Grey, a District 59 assistant superintendent, clarified the district's position on Tuesday.
"We are continuing with our current mitigation practices in place, including the requirement of a face covering when in our schools," he wrote via email in response to a Daily Herald query. "We are awaiting further clarification and guidance from the appellate court decision, which is expected this week."