Students walk through Riverside-Brookfield High School between classes on Feb. 28, the first official day of the school’s “mask-recommended” policy. No local school districts are requiring staff and students to wear masks for the first time in two years. | Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer

Monday, Feb. 28 was the first day since the COVID-19 pandemic hit nearly two years ago that all kids attending local schools did not have to wear face masks, as all area school districts have now adopted mask-optional policies. Monday was also the first day that Illinois did not have a requirement to wear face masks indoors in most public places.

Jennifer Fournier’s twin fourth-graders who attend Central School in Riverside were ecstatic when they learned on Sunday they would no longer have to wear masks in school.

“They were super-excited,” said Fournier “They wanted to go to school for the first time in a long time.”

The twins were not the only ones. Central School Principal Pete Gatz estimated that only about 25 percent of Central School students wore masks on Feb. 28. At Ames School in Riverside, Principal Todd Gierman also estimated 70 to 75 percent of students were unmasked on Monday.

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In Brookfield-LaGrange Park School District 95 a greater percentage of students apparently wore masks. District 95 Superintendent Mark Kuzniewski estimated that maybe half of kindergarteners through second-graders wore masks and perhaps 60 to 70 percent of third- through fifth-graders wore masks. 

Kuzniewski estimated that 85 percent of students at S.E. Gross Middle School started the day wearing face masks and 70 percent still had them on by the end of the school day.

“I think the number of students wearing masks has probably decreased as the day has gone on,” Kuzniewski said. “It does vary by grade.”

Riverside-Brookfield High School District 208 Superintendent Kevin Skinkis estimated that about 70 percent of RBHS students wore masks on Feb. 28 and one student estimated that only about 10 to 20 percent of students were not wearing face masks.

Most but not all teachers wore masks at area schools.

In North Riverside, Komarek School Principal Diane Michelini said she thought the majority of Komarek students wore masks.

“Right now, we have more masked than unmasked, it appears” Michelini said. “But what I’ve learned from other districts is that as the days go on, that shifts.”

Michelini said she would have preferred that masks were still required.

“I can say I’m sad to see the mask thing go,” Michelini said. “We shall see.”

Over the past few weeks local school districts have all decided to go to a mask-optional or mask-recommended policy as COVID cases plummeted.

LaGrange-Brookfield District 102 went mask optional on Feb. 9 and Kuzniewski announced on Feb. 10 that District 95 would go mask optional on Feb. 28. 

Riverside-Brookfield High School announced on Feb. 16 that it would go mask recommended on Feb. 28, but then moved up that date a week to Feb. 22. The school boards of Lyons Township High School and Lyons-Brookfield School District 103 both voted on Feb. 22 to go mask optional.

Riverside Elementary District 96 was the last local school district to go mask optional, announcing its change in an email to parents on Feb. 26, less than 24 hours hours after sending an email to families saying that masks would be required until at least after the March 2 school board meeting. 

On Feb. 16, the District 96 school board voted unanimously to keep its mask requirement in place until at least the March 2, when it would reevaluate the issue. Superintendent Martha Ryan-Toye’s email to families on Feb. 25 reiterated that position.

But right about the time that email was going out, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced that he was lifting his statewide school mask mandate. 

The Illinois State Board of Education repeated that new guidance Friday evening, with the federal Centers for Disease Control shifting its guidance to no longer recommending masks in most of the country. Those developments fueled an angry response to Ryan-Toye’s email on Feb. 25.

“I received a lot of emails from parents on Friday night and Saturday morning, people feeling confused, frustrated, angry,” Ryan-Toye told the Landmark. “I think people thought that my message was coming out to coincide with the governor and the state board of ed almost to defy and contradict.”

Although they had voted to continue masking until at least March 2, school board members quickly concluded that that they could not wait to change their policy.

“Essentially the state and the feds made the requirements a lot harder to enforce,” board member Joel Marhoul said. “They made it impossible considering the greater political sentiment.” 

School board President Dan Hunt agreed.

“We found ourselves pretty much in an untenable spot,” Hunt said. 

On the morning of Feb. 26, Ryan-Toye conferred by telephone with each board member individually and the decision was made to go mask optional immediately. 

A resolution passed by the school board last summer gave Ryan-Toye the power to change policy on her own subject to a vote of the school board to affirm or reject her decision at a subsequent meeting. 

When they meet again March 2, school board members are expected to vote to continue the new mask-optional policy.

Face masks have been a divisive issue the entire school year as some argued that they were ineffective and interfered with learning, with some parents arguing they should be able to choose whether their children wore masks.

“I think that in the past two years that the sense of community has very much been damaged in lockdown and everything else,” Marhoul said.

Most superintendents hope that the face mask issue is behind them.

“I’m happy to be done talking about masking, at least for the time being, and maybe getting focused on things that are non-COVID that’s for sure,” Kuzniewski said.