Shifting Guidance and a Surging Virus Cast School Boards in the Spotlight
Local School Boards Craft Covid Policy Amidst Community Crowds, Shifting Guidance and Lots of Uncertainty
Families across Illinois looking for a coherent back-to-school plan are starting to realize that the only thing they know for sure is that there will be little certainty about how this school year will start. That’s because federal and state agencies have come out with changing guidelines that don't always gel, at a time when virus spread is concerning experts -- and this combination is tossing school boards, parents, teachers, staff, and students headlong into chaos, confusion, and irritation.
It started in early July when the Centers of Disease Control (CDC) issued its COVID prevention guidelines for the reopening of schools in the fall. At that time, the CDC guidance didn’t mandate mask-wearing indoors, but rather recommended masks for the unvaccinated. Shortly thereafter, several school boards across the state -- including suburban Wheaton, Northern Illinois’ Genoa-Kingston, and Dunlap in Central Illinois -- began making their school re-opening decisions with “mask optional” or “mask recommended” policies in line with this CDC document. Also around the same time, other districts, like those in Chicago and Peoria, announced mandatory mask policies for all students, and it seemed like there was room for a fairly wide-range of mask use in schools.
Then, on July 27, the CDC updated its recommendation, stating that even vaccinated Americans resume wearing masks indoors if they are in areas with high transmissibility of the COVID-19 virus and recommending masks for teachers, staff, students and visitors to K-12 school, regardless of vaccination status. The update notes, “Children should return to full-time, in-person learning in the fall with layered prevention strategies in place.” Shortly afterwards, the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) announced it would fully adopt these revised guidelines so the two advisory agencies were in lockstep.
This announcement wasn’t totally surprising because it coincided with widespread news about increasing spread of the Delta variant, but confusion over these two CDC guidelines, issued only weeks apart and just before school was set to begin, threatened to throw school districts who hadn’t issued their plans into a tailspin, and prompt those that had to consider revisiting them.
For the public, the controversy sparked renewed interest in their local school board meetings, which droves of people attended (many for the first time) in order to advocate for the policy they thought best.
School boards historically convene summer meetings and back-to-school town halls to announce plans for the upcoming school year, often with sparse attendance. This summer, the depth of the interest and the intensity of the focus was on masks -- should they be banned, mandatory, optional, recommended, parents’ choice, or serve as a touchstone for broad controversy and a reason for packed meetings lasting well beyond the standard 1-2 hours. The trend is so widespread, an education industry website posted an article advising school boards on how to conduct their meetings in the midst of such heated discourse.
There are community groups who want school boards to approve mandatory masks for everyone in schools all the time, and those who are certain masks aren’t only useless, but actually cause illness and interfere with learning as well as social/emotional development. And, the most fervent camps within these groups have one thing in common: they both may very well keep their children home from school if the districts don’t approve their viewpoint.
“We are essentially the bottom of the hill,” said Bill Dussling, President of District 214 School Board, speaking of himself and fellow members. Dussling’s responsibility is a big one; D214 is the largest high school district in the state, tasked with educating approximately 12,000 high school students amongst its six suburban high schools.
And he’s right.
This year, school boards are responsible for crafting back to school policies to mitigate COVID-19 spread with tools like masks, social distancing, classroom schedules, testing, sanitization, and air exchanges in their buildings. They are navigating general, often vague and sometimes contradictory, guidance from the federal, state and local agencies. Current school board members serve a population of their friends and neighbors who have all endured one incredibly challenging school year during a pandemic and have seen their share of hits and misses, and who have developed different, and sometimes entrenched, ideas about the virus and how to mitigate it. These elected volunteers want to make sure children, staff, and teachers are safe and in a place that is best suited to learning, but understand that whatever they decide, a certain percentage of their community may not only be unsatisfied, but may file legal action.
The D214 board voted Thursday night, but in advance of that meeting, Dussling was thinking about his priorities as board president. He said, “To me, it comes down to student and staff safety and security, a plan that works under the edicts we are subject to, and just doing the best we can.”
Board President Dussling is mindful that the school board doesn’t operate in a vacuum and they also have to consider the potential legal risk attached to the policy they endorse. “We are going to follow the science,” Dussling predicted, “because if you don’t and something happens, you are defenseless.”
School districts are afforded legal protections from the Illinois Local Governmental and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act in the event they face injury or death claims related to COVID-19. This is especially true of school districts that implement policies that comply with federal and state statutes, along with guidelines provided by the CDC, Public Health Departments, IHSA, and ISBE.
So, school boards work closely with both community members and their law firms on COVID-19 plans and the better their policy complies with issued guidance, the stronger their protections are in the event of a lawsuit, which could financially drain a district. For many school board members, it’s an extremely hard balance to strike.
The balance District 214 decided on at their July 29th meeting was to not require teachers, staff, students, and visitors to wear masks.
According to a Daily Herald article, District 214 School Superintendent David Schuler said,"It is important to note that I am not recommending required, universal mask-wearing by all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to schools. I am recommending that we adopt the public health language from the CDC."
The article also notes that the School District recommendations may change according to the COVID-19 metrics in the area. This is a stance many school districts are taking because a rise or fall in COVID-19 spread, or updated state or federal guidance, could impact district recommendations and policies.
“I think it is a good idea to wear masks indoors now because of the Delta variant,” said Elk Grove Village parent, Trish Bourke, who appreciates the fact that the District 214 policy would be updated as the situation changes. “Like everyone else, I want things to get back to normal, and when the COVID counts are declining, we should change policies to reflect that.”
Flexibility and local decision-making will be two key hallmarks of school planning for Fall 2021, since both the virus and guidance are bound to change over time. And one thing is fairly certain: no matter what the policies are for the first day of school, they could change by Halloween and then again as Valentine’s Day nears. Nobody thought heading back to school in 2021 was going to be easy, but few imagined it was going to be this complicated.
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