Students and staff alike will be wearing face coverings when classes resume at Brook Park School and S.E. Gross Middle School after the Brookfield-LaGrange Park District 95 school board on July 29 directed Superintendent Mark Kuzniewski to make universal masking part of the district’s 2021-22 return-to-school plan.
Board members were unanimous in their decision to require face coverings inside school buildings to begin the school year with recent guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommending universal indoor masking in schools.
The decision came during a special meeting of the District 95 school board held in the new gymnasium at Brook Park School in LaGrange Park in front of about 30 parents with about 15 more watching over Zoom.
Masking guidance has been changing almost weekly in Illinois and around the nation after a spike in new COVID-19 resulting from the spread of the highly infectious delta variant, which originated in India but is now present throughout the United States.
Just a day before the July 29 special meeting, the Illinois State Board of Education announced it would be following the latest CDC guidelines which recommended universal masking inside schools for anyone 2 and older.
In a statement issued July 28, the ISBE warned that “school boards that choose not to implement public health guidance are putting their students and staff at risk and should consult with their insurers as to potential liability.”
School board members – the only member absent was Barbara Garvey – were unified in their wish to begin the school year on Aug. 25 with a universal mask mandate, citing the latest guidance and the contagious nature of the delta variant.
“What we don’t know yet is what effect that’s going to have on children,” said school board member Melissa Biskupic, an infection control nurse appointed to the school board in June to fill a vacancy. “I’m not saying the disease itself is more deadly to children, but what I’m saying is that children now are going to have the opportunity to catch the disease. …
“What we do know is that masking works. It worked in the schools last year.”
A dozen parents weighed in on whether to make face coverings mandatory or optional, with those speaking evenly split on the subject.
The arguments for and against were the familiar ones, with parents alternately urging universal masking to protect children under 12 who are not yet eligible for vaccines, and others arguing that the decision to mask their children should be up to them.
In the end, school board members said they were choosing to require universal masking to begin the school year – the subject will be revisited by the school board monthly as more data becomes available and as infection rates either rise or fall – because it was in the interest of public health.
“We are a public school and our role as a board of education is to educate every student,” said school board president Katie Mulcrone. “We have a responsibility to them, and at the same time we have a responsibility to the community. From the emails we’ve received as a board there was a plea to think about more than just our children but who our children were going home to.”
While seventh- and eighth-graders at S.E. Gross Middle School are eligible for vaccination and many are fully vaccinated, the school board included them as well as staff in the mask mandate not only because its follows the most recent guidance, but also because it would make contact tracing very difficult.
Kuzniewski explained updated protocols for determining “close contacts” resulting in a student quarantining. For example, if a student is determined to be in close contact to another student who has been exposed to COVID-19 – within three feet — as long as both students were masked, the close contact would not need to quarantine.
That’s a change from last year and one officials hope will drive down the frequency of enforced quarantines.
Anyone vaccinated will also not be asked to quarantine if they come in close contact with someone who has been exposed to COVID-19, as long as they don’t exhibit symptoms.
However, the school district will not require proof of vaccination from either students or staff, said Kuzniewski, despite a recent trend of both private companies and government agencies moving toward such a requirement.
Staff are also not required to be vaccinated, said Kuzniewski, who added that despite the lack of a mandate about 95 percent of staff had been vaccinated.
Kuzniewski also outlined other updated protocols for the new school year, which include removing capacity limits on school buses, which last year had been limited to 47 kids per bus. However, both students and drivers will be required to wear masks at all times when on the bus.
By Sept. 15, said Kuzniewski, the school district hopes to return to a more traditional hot lunch service instead of the grab-and-go sack lunches students were provided last year. All students will have access to free lunches for the 2021-22 school year.
But physical distancing of six feet – one kid per table – will be maintained in school lunch rooms.
While the expectation is for all children to return to classrooms full time, if any student needs to quarantine for any lengthy period, the school district will provide a remote learning option for that student, which would including synchronous instruction – i.e. Zooming into the classroom – for core classes and asynchronous learning for other classes.