Recommended, not mandated

Ann Gill

Coal City students and teachers will not be forced to wear masks while in the classroom this fall under a proposed resolution that needs to be adopted by the Unit 1 Board of Education. The resolution outlines pandemic prevention measures for the upcoming school year, including the utilization of face masks if and when COVID-19 cases increase. The resolution was presented during a special board study session on Monday. It follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] guidelines for K-12 schools and adopted by the Illinois Department of Public Health [IDPH] and Illinois State Board of Education [ISBE]. For school districts, the guidelines put an emphasis on local control and that’s just what school superintendents across the state want. “What superintendents across the state have been advocating for, myself included, is some semblance of local control when it comes to making health and safety decisions for our students, our staff and our community,” said Unit 1 Superintendent Dr. Kent Bugg. “The argument is our state is far too diverse to accommodate a one size fits all model for COVID mitigations like we did last year. For example there are roughly 12.6 million people who live in Illinois and only about 51,000 of those people who live in Grundy County and only about 10,000 of those people live within our school district boundaries,” Bugg continued. The CDC guidance urges school districts to consider the wearing of face masks, contact tracing and quarantine, community and school based testing, as well as cleaning protocols. Although the CDC had issued its guidance, it took IDPH and ISBE seven days to announce its intent to adopt the guidance. “As you know we don’t get a whole lot of notice from the state on these types of things and when we get it we have to move very quickly. When we went through our Return to School planning process last summer, we received guidance like we did this time in mid-July. Like this time, we are left with very little time to make our plans.” The 16-page CDC document will assist the district in revising its Return to School plan. That process starts with the resolution under consideration by the seven-member Board of Education. Various groups, including the district’s liability insurance carrier and legal team, say the CDC guidance provides significant local control when it comes to COVID mitigation decisions, and the draft resolution appears to be within the board’s discretion. Recommendations outlined for the board include: • All students will be provided a full day of in-person instruction. • As long as supported by local health data, mask usage is recommended for unvaccinated individuals, but there will be no universal mask mandate for students/staff. • Individuals will not be required to disclose their vaccination status to school district officials. Parents, students and staff may wish to voluntarily disclose their vaccination status to avoid a mandatory quarantine following close contact with a COVID-positive person. • The CDC/IDPH requires masks for all students/staff on any school district transportation [bus, activity bus, drivers education vehicle]. • Remote learning will only be offered to those students under a quarantine order. Remote learning methods will be determined by the individual teacher[s]. • Currently, students under age 12 are not eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. Therefore, to reduce opportunities for virus transmission, students in grades K-5 will remain in cohorts as much as possible. Students in K-5 cohorts may be required to temporarily mask in the case of a COVID positive case[s] within the cohort. • All schools will continue with other health and safety prevention strategies such as: –social distancing of at least 3 feet; -encouraging parents/guardians to self-check their children for daily COVID symptoms prior to school and keep them home if they display any symptoms; -mandatory quarantines for COVID positive students and staff; -mandatory quarantines for unvaccinated individuals with any COVID symptom[s]; -encouraging and practicing proper hand and respiratory hygiene; - ensuring proper ventilation in all schools; -practicing proper cleaning and disinfection of learning spaces; -voluntary community-based or in-house COVID testing program for symptomatic students/staff, and -CDC guidance recommends that age eligible students [currently age 12 and older] receive a COVID-19 vaccine • Should local health data required increased mitigations [ie: mask mandate, increased social distancing, changes in lunch service, remote learning, etc.] the Board of Education will not hesitate to make such changes to ensure the health and safety of all students and staff. It was noted during the special session on Monday that parents have contacted board members wanting masks to mandated in school buildings and others who want mask usage to be optional. The district’s plan is to follow the guidance that does not mandate mask usage, rather it recommends the utilization of face masks in-doors by unvaccinated individuals —children and adults. Vaccinated individuals are not required to mask up in-doors, and masks are not required by anyone outdoors. As previously noted, the only mandated use of masks—both students and adults—will be on buses and drivers education vehicles. Remote learning is required only when a student is under a quarantine order. Remote learning will not be an option for students starting Aug. 17 when the school year begins. Bugg said the guidance still requires individuals who test positive or who have been deemed to be in close contact with someone COVID positive or displaying COVID symptoms to follow quarantine protocols like they did last year. The one change is that individuals who are fully vaccinated and are symptom- free are not required to quarantine. Schools will still need to conduct contact tracing if a positive case arises and report that information to the local health department. “In drafting the board resolution I think it was important to keep in mind this board has made it clear the health and safety of our students and staff is the district’s top priority. I think it’s important to note the health and safety of our students encompasses far more than physical health and we have to pay attention to their academic health and more importantly their mental health. The physical, academic and mental health of students was at the forefront of our thoughts in the development of the draft of this resolution,” Bugg said. The content of the resolution was drafted in consultation with district officials, as well as local superintendents including those at Reed-Custer District 255-U and Wilmington School District 209-U. Bugg cautions an uptick in COVID-19 cases could prompt changes at any time. “In a month we may have to come back and say we have to do something. But based on the data we have right now, I think this is the recommendation that keeps everyone safe and services our kids the best.” Bugg said. The draft resolution has been shared with the district’s union membership for feedback, and has been posted on the district’s website to gain parent and community feedback. A special meeting of the Board of Education has been called for 6 p.m., tonight [Wednesday, July 21] for the board to receive community input and take a vote. Should the board adopt the resolution, school officials will begin the process of revising the Return to School plan in advance of a return to full-day, in-person instruction. The board will meet in the district’s administration center on Carbon Hill Road.