Students wore face masks when they returned to District 96 classrooms this past April and may very well have to do so when they return next month. | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

In the face of rising COVID-19 infection rates and despite the impassioned pleas of one parent, the Riverside Elementary District 96 Board of Education is poised to authorize a mandatory mask policy for all students when the 2021-22 school year starts next month.

The board will take a vote on the issue during a special meeting on Aug. 4, but all five board members in attendance at the board’s July 21 meeting indicated they favored mandating masks to start the school year.

“Everybody should be required to mask regardless of vaccination status,” said board member Stephanie Basanez Gunn.

Board members David Barsotti and Shari Klyber agreed, pointing to the recent recommendation by the American Academy of Pediatrics that all schoolchildren should wear masks while they are inside a school building, regardless of vaccination status.

In a nearly 12-minute long public comment at the beginning of the meeting and in a five minute public comment at the end, Abby Olech, the mother of two Central School students, implored the board to make mask wearing voluntary.

“I believe masks should be optional,” Olech said. “I do believe it should be the right for the parent to decide if we should restrict the oxygen to their children.”

Olech argued, without evidence, that wearing masks does not prevent the transmission of viruses and that wearing masks for long periods of time could be dangerous to children and affects their mental health.

“Where are the long-term studies that you can show me that masks are safe,” Olech said.

Olech said people should not be scared of the COVID-19 virus, saying that nearly all children who contract COVID do not die from the virus.

“We need to look at viruses as a good thing and not as a bad thing,” Olech said. “This is not very deadly to children. We can all get sick; it’s OK to be sick.”

The federal Center for Disease Control says most children who are infected with COVID-19 have mild symptoms or no symptoms at all, but some children can get severely ill and in rare cases can die.

Olech said her children will claim a medical exemption from mask-wearing and argued that the district must accept any medical exemption claim.

“If I say medical exemption, I should not have to prove it,” Olech said. “It should not be reviewed why, if I have a doctor’s note or not. I am their mom; I know them best.”

Olech seemed to threaten to sue the district if her children are not allowed to attend school maskless.

“I’m getting a lawyer,” Olech said.

It is not yet clear if teachers will be required to wear masks, but it appears that vaccinated children will have to wear masks. At this time, only children 12 and above are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.

District 96 will return to a normal schedule for the upcoming school year. Kids will be able to take masks off indoors to eat lunch but will be seated so that they are not directly facing each other.

All classrooms and other indoor spaces will be outfitted with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters. The district is likely to offer a voluntary saliva screening test for students and staff.

Other local elementary school districts are also weighing whether to require masks. LaGrange-Brookfield District 102, which includes southwest Brookfield, will discuss the issue at a school board meeting July 22.

Brookfield-LaGrange Park District 95 will discuss the issue at a special meeting on July 29. Lyons-Brookfield District 103, which serves southeast Brookfield, and Komarek School District 94, which serves North Riverside west of First Avenue, have yet to make decisions.

District 103 superintendent Kristopher Rivera said that administrators are meeting with union groups and surveying parents before making a decision about masks.

Districts across the Chicago area are also making this decision. Some, such as Elgin U46, the second largest school district in the state, are requiring masks while others, such as Arlington Heights District 25, are making masks voluntary.