A Riverside District 96 school board member criticized colleagues and the administration last week, saying the abrupt change to the district’s mask mandate policy on Feb. 26 flew in the face of the Open Meetings Act.
Shari Klyber read a lengthy statement criticizing the school district’s actions at the March 2 school board meeting before abstaining from a vote to confirm the decision announced four days earlier in an email by Superintendent Martha Ryan-Toye.
“The process that led to the change in policy was, in my opinion, not appropriate or consistent with the goals of the Open Meetings Act to conduct the people’s business openly,” Klyber said.
At the school board’s March 2 meeting the Board of Education voted 5 to 1, with Klyber abstaining, to confirm the mask-optional policy that was put in place on Feb. 28. Board member David Barsotti voted against the new policy.
Klyber said the policy should have not have been changed until the board could discuss it in public at a meeting.
“The superintendent’s abrupt decision on Saturday morning to override the board’s policy and act contrary to the communications to the families the night before was made without my feedback,” Klyber said.
Klyber said she received a call from board President Dan Hunt on Feb. 24 saying there was a consensus on the board to change the masking policy, and that he wanted to move the March 2 meeting to Feb. 28 so the board could act more quickly.
Scheduling conflicts didn’t allow the meeting to be moved, prompting Hunt and Ryan-Toye to decide not to wait for a board meeting to change the mask policy.
Hunt said a change in the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention masking recommendations and Gov. J.B. Pritzker dropping his indoor masking requirement made immediate action necessary. Most other school districts had already moved to optional masking effective Feb. 28 and Hunt did not think District 96 should be an outlier, especially when the district was facing pressure from parents.
Hunt also said that a resolution the school board adopted last summer allowed the superintendent to change its COVID mitigation plan and for the school board to vote at its next meeting to ratify or reject the changes.
“I thought that we needed to react to it then, as soon as we could, to avoid distractions, to avoid confusion,” Hunt said. “It would not have been a good environment for learning had we not acted. And Martha had the right to act, with our approval, which we did and I believe we are being accountable to the public by talking about it now.”
Klyber objected to Hunt sounding out board members before the meeting asking how they would vote.
“I want to talk in public,” Klyber said. “That’s what we should be doing.”
Klyber said she was never asked by Hunt or Ryan-Toye for her opinion on the ending the masking requirement.
Ryan-Toye reportedly sent a text message to Klyber on the morning of Feb. 26 before sending an email to families announcing the shift, but Klyber was teaching a class and unable to respond to the text message.
“I strongly believe that our goal should always be to strive for public discussion and public action,” Klyber said.
Hunt pointed out that Klyber had previously told him never to ask her outside of a board meeting how she would vote on an issue. Hunt and board Vice President Lynda Murphy said they had individually talked to some other board members about the face mask issue, but only in one-on-one conversations so as to not violate the Open Meetings Act.
“I didn’t have time to have conversations with everybody, but I was taking a pulse of everybody in that way,” Murphy said, addressing Klyber. “I’m sorry that you feel the process was flawed. I understand that this was not typical, but I think we are in a pandemic and decisions get made faster. We live in a digital age that doesn’t always align with an every two- or three-week board meeting.”
David Barsotti said he was voting against the switch to mask-optional, noting that both he and his wife work in healthcare.
“This virus is not over with,” Barsotti said. “All I’m asking for is just a little bit more time. I do understand the tides are turning but I think if we just had a little bit more time, we can get this better under control.”
But Hunt and other board members did not want to buck the broad trend of mask-optional policies that have been sweeping the state and nation.
“When we find ourselves out of step with that guidance there’s not much of a choice to be made, in my opinion,” Hunt said.