Back to school will be mask optional at Reed-Custer

RCHS BUS DRIVER Jennifer Crater (right) speaks at the July 21 meeting of the Board of Education, prior to the board’s approval of a resolution for safety plans and procedures for the return to school next month. Photo by Marney Simon.

Marney Simon

About 25 members of the community turned out for this month’s meeting of the Reed-Custer School District Board of Education meeting on July 21 to weigh in on the plans for a safe return to school as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

The topic on most everyone’s minds—the role that masks will play for students and staff in the upcoming school year.

Superintendent Mark Mitchell sent communication to families prior to the meeting, where the board voted unanimously to adopt a resolution for policies and procedures for the return to school.

That resolution contains nine recommendations for returning to school, which will include a return to in-person learning, recommendations for prevention strategies, and guidance for health monitoring. Those recommendations are all in line with formal guidance from the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for COVID-19 prevention in K-12 schools.

Per the resolution, as long as supported by local health data, mask usage is recommended for unvaccinated individuals but will not be mandated for any students or staff.

But many parents at the meeting were there to urge the board to vote against allowing the mask mandate to return, even though the year will start without that requirement. Parents also urged the board to rethink the requirements for when students must quarantine.

“This pandemic has come in and its just flipped our kids upside down,” Phil Nagel, a parent of a high school student, told the board. “This whole coming year, out of an abundance of caution—which is a term I keep hearing over and over again from everybody—we’re just going to keep doing this. We’re normalizing what is not right.”

Nagel and several other attendees questioned quarantines, and if they were necessary for unsymptomatic students who may have been exposed to COVID-19. Instead, those parents suggested that parents or guardians should have a choice if they want their children to wear masks in the classroom or stay home.

“We need a school board like yourselves to stand up and say, no more,” Nagel said. “You guys won’t be popular with the state... but the kids in this town will look up to you, and you will set a model for the rest of the state.”

Other parents noted that some children, particularly those with special needs, are visual learners who have trouble succeeding in an environment where everyone must wear a mask.

Those in attendance also noted that with mask mandates lifted this summer, students have already been out in public maskless for the past two months.

But not everyone in attendance was in favor of the district saying no for good to certain recommendations.

Jenny Crater, a bus driver with the district, reminded the parents that unlike other schools, Reed-Custer was able to have in-person attendance throughout the 2020-2021 school year thanks to the protocols utilized.

“These seniors got to have a senior year. The school went above and beyond to give them a prom, and they loved that prom,” Crater said. “We’re still ahead... you just have to give everybody a chance to keep up, to accept that it will get better. Everything always gets better, but it’s not going to happen in a year... If the little ones have to wear a mask, the teachers are going to make it better for them. Just give it another year.”

After a public comment period that lasted just over 50 minutes, Mitchell addressed the concerns of the public, noting that the guidance for the new year was made after collaboration with the school districts in Wilmington and Coal City, which both passed the same resolution for the start of the new year.

“This board has been incredibly supportive of the students in this district and allowed us to be in school all of last year, but we also do, just like in life, have rules that we follow,” Mitchell said. “And we do follow the guidelines that are set forth upon us by the professional organizations. That’s what we did successfully last year.”

Mitchell noted the resolution was brought to the district’s legal firm, Whitt Law, to make sure that the resolution would not put the district in a position of financial liability. Mitchell said the legal guidance is that the resolution is appropriate.

Mitchell said now that the board has approved the resolution, they district will work on the detailed back to school plans for each building, and share that with families as soon as they are available.

The optional mask guidance does not apply to school buses, where masking remains mandatory per the CDC guidelines, due to the inability to keep students at least three feet apart on transportation.

Per the resolution, students and staff will not be required to disclose their vaccination status, however, they may voluntarily disclose that status to avoid quarantine if exposed to COVID-19.

Students and staff who have known exposure to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 will still be required to quarantine.

The district will implement safety and prevention strategies district wide, including social distancing of at least 3 feet, encouraging self checks, quarantines, frequent handwashing, regular cleaning and disinfection of learning spaces, ensuring proper ventilation in schools, encouraging everyone 12 and older to get vaccinated, and utilizing a voluntary COVID-19 testing program for symptomatic students and staff.

“We have followed the mandates issued by IDPH and ISBE, and reviewed local COVID-19 metrics since the beginning of the pandemic,” Mitchell said. “If professional guidance changes or local COVID-19 data supports a return to certain mitigations, for example required masks, increased social distancing, instruction setting revisions, et cetera, we will review our plans and we will adjust as needed. We did that last year; we made revisions and we had a very successful school year.”

One thing that will change for sure this year—remote learning will no longer be an option as the year begins, except for students who need to be on quarantine.

Back in May, the Illinois State Board of Education passed a resolution that all schools statewide must resume fully in-person learning for all student attendance days, limiting remote learning only to quarantine-specific needs.

The CDC guidance for back to school states the following:

• Students benefit from in-person learning, and safely returning to in-person instruction in the fall 2021 is a priority.

• Vaccination is currently the leading public health prevention strategy to end the COVID-19 pandemic. Promoting vaccination can help schools safely return to in-person learning as well as extracurricular activities and sports.

• Masks should be worn indoors by all individuals (age 2 and older) who are not fully vaccinated. Consistent and correct mask use by people who are not fully vaccinated is especially important indoors and in crowded settings, when physical distancing cannot be maintained.

• CDC recommends schools maintain at least 3 feet of physical distance between students within classrooms, combined with indoor mask wearing by people who are not fully vaccinated, to reduce transmission risk. When it is not possible to maintain a physical distance of at least 3 feet, such as when schools cannot fully re-open while maintaining these distances, it is especially important to layer multiple other prevention strategies, such as indoor masking.

• Screening testing, ventilation, handwashing and respiratory etiquette, staying home when sick and getting tested, contact tracing in combination with quarantine and isolation, and cleaning and disinfection are also important layers of prevention to keep schools safe.

• Students, teachers, and staff should stay home when they have signs of any infectious illness and be referred to their healthcare provider for testing and care.

• Many schools serve children under the age of 12 who are not eligible for vaccination at this time. Therefore, this guidance emphasizes implementing layered prevention strategies (e.g., using multiple prevention strategies together consistently) to protect people who are not fully vaccinated, including students, teachers, staff, and other members of their households.

• COVID-19 prevention strategies remain critical to protect people, including students, teachers, and staff, who are not fully vaccinated, especially in areas of moderate-to-high community transmission levels.

• Localities should monitor community transmission, vaccination coverage, screening testing, and occurrence of outbreaks to guide decisions on the level of layered prevention strategies (e.g., physical distancing, screening testing).

The first day of student attendance in the Reed-Custer School District is Aug. 16.