Students in Riverside District 96 schools will continue to wear face masks, at least for now, after action taken by the school board on Feb. 16 | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

Students and teachers will have to continue wearing masks in school, for now at least, in Riverside Elementary School District 96. On Feb. 16 the District 96 Board of Education voted unanimously to keep the district’s indoor masking requirement in place. However, the school board will reconsider the issue at its next meeting on March 2.

School board members cited their local authority to run schools as the basis for their decision, so that District 96’s policy will not be dependent on whatever happens with a lawsuit challenging Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s executive order requiring masking in schools.

“There’s just so much in flux right now,” said school board member David Barsotti said. “Granted the numbers are going down, but we just need to see where things are going.”

Some board members said that COVID cases had not declined enough to remove the mask requirement. Committing to review the mask requirement in two weeks allows the board to see how the legal challenge to Pritzker’s order plays out and to observe the experiences of other school districts that have already made masks optional.

“This continuing protection allows us to maintain a level of safety for our children, some of whom cannot get vaccinated,” school board member Joel Marhoul said. “We do intend to maintain in-person learning as much as possible and avoid going remote.”

Board members say that they want to see what happens with local COVID transmission rates and if guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control changes.

“District 96 has consistently used public health information to inform our decisions, so I personally would be in favor of listening to the experts tell us what is appropriate for children,” said board member Shari Klyber. “We still have a high rate of transmission.”

But there appears to be a recognition that an end universal masking in schools is inevitable, and school board President Dan Hunt said the board must be ready to reconsider its policy as circumstances change and evolve. 

“It is important that we revisit this as soon as our next meeting, and potentially sooner, should anything else change between now and then,” Hunt said. 

Hunt added that the impending end of the statewide indoor mask mandate outside of schools on Feb. 28 marks an inflection point for him.

Before voting, the board heard from three teachers who asked to keep the mask requirement in place, citing health and safety concerns and the value of continuity in the classroom. 

“We have worked so hard to put procedures and expectations in place to create a safe learning environment for your children throughout the pandemic,” said Jennie Popovic, a teacher at L.J. Hauser Junior High School. 

She said removing the mask mandate would cause anxiety for many students. She added that some teachers are immunocompromised and some students have siblings at home who are too young to get vaccinated. 

“Teaching puts me at risk for COVID,” Popovic said. “I have a weakened immune system. … By coming to work each day to something that I love, to teach your children I’m putting my health at risk.”

During the public comment portion of the meeting the board also heard from six parents, via email, who urged the district to go mask optional. Three of those letters were virtually identical.

Those opposed to mask mandate pointed to other school districts, states and countries that no longer require face masks in school. They also said that vaccines are widely available and that COVID is here to stay and that is rarely severe in children.

“Everyone will have a date with COVID; it can’t be avoided,” said a comment submitted by Melissa Parker. A couple of other parent emails made the same point with nearly identical language.

Mask opponents also said that if the district went mask optional those who wish to continue to wear face masks would be free to do so.

The leaders of the teachers union reported that 61.2 percent of its members said they would not be comfortable in a classroom with unmasked students.

Superintendent Martha Ryan-Toye reported that 70.24 percent of District 96 students have been vaccinated against COVID-19. Vaccination rates in individual schools range from a high of 78.4 percent at Hauser Junior High to a low of 59.84 percent at Ames Elementary School.

Other schools signal shift in masking

Meanwhile, Riverside-Brookfield High School has said it will make mask wearing optional on Feb. 28. The school informed parents and students by email of that intention on Feb. 16 and posted a copy of the notice its website on Feb. 17.

However, the school district effectively went mask-optional this week, according to a Feb. 21 announcement, which referred to this week as a “transition” period during which masks are “strongly encouraged … but not required.” The update was posted on the RBHS website on Feb. 21.

RBHS’ move to a mask recommended on Feb. 28 puts it in line with Brookfield-LaGrange Park District 95, which is also planning to move to a mask-recommended policy on Feb. 28.

Meanwhile, at their meeting on Feb. 22 after the Landmark’s press time, the Lyons Township High School District 204 Board of Education was slated to take a vote on a new COVID-19 mitigation plan that would make mask wearing “strongly recommended” but not required as of Feb. 28.

The Lyons-Brookfield Elementary School District 103 Board of Education was also poised to vote on Feb. 22 to remove its mask mandate for students and staff. If the school board votes to approve the change, masks would be recommended but not required in school buildings immediately. 

On Feb. 20, Komarek School District 94 Superintendent Todd Fitzgerald sent a letter to families stating Komarek School will “strong recommend” wearing masks beginning Feb. 28 but that masks will not be mandated.

The letter noted that students testing positive for COVID-19 must still stay home for five days to quarantine. They will also have to wear a mask for five days after they return to their classrooms.