November 30, 2022 Local Stories in and Around St. Joseph, Illinois

Masks not optional in St. Joseph schools; PVO allows masks to be optional

St. Joseph-Ogden High School Superintendent Brian Brooks is asking the community for patience.
In an email sent to parents Sunday, the district announced they would  continue to require students and staff to wear masks amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic until the district gets more clarity regarding a temporary restraining order against Gov. J.B. Pritzker, the Illinois Department of Public Health, the Illinois State Board of Education and more than 140 school districts who were named in a lawsuit.

SJO was not named in the lawsuit.

The ruling states the defendants are temporarily restrained from requiring the Plaintiffs (students/families of those particular school districts) to wear masks unless there is a quarantine order from the health department. 
The class action aspect of the case, which would have meant the ruling applied to all school districts and students in the state, was not certified by the judge in the case.

A formal appeal was filed Monday by the governor, the ISBE and the IDPH.

“Our only reason for staying the course right now is the uncertainly of this Temporary Restraining Order,” Brooks said, “and the possibility of an appeal, and even a stay order put in place that mandates all school districts to stay the course until the appeal is finished.”

Brooks said the district is concerned if the decision from Friday was overturned on appeal next week or a stay order was put in place, it would be extremely difficult to go back to requiring masks.

“We just asked our families for a little time to see how the dust settles,” he said. “We have had so much ‘back and forth’ the past 23 months.  We are trying to avoid that for our students if possible.”

Brooks said he feels the way the issue has been handled at a state and federal level has created a divide among people.

“And now everyone is seeing that divide locally,” he said. “That is disheartening. We have enough divide right now in society as it is.” 

Brooks said he understands people airing their grievances to him as the superintendent.

“That is what we somewhat signed up for and knew going into our positions,” he said, “and we are much easier to access than anyone in a state-level office.”

Brooks does take issue, however, with the public verbally attacking school board members.

“These are seven people who have volunteered their time to serve on a school board in the best interest of the school district and kids,” he said. “At SJO, we have seven incredibly selfless people who truly have both the kids and the taxpayers best interests at heart. They deserve better, in my opinion.”

Brooks said the district is not taking a stance that they feel masks should be mandated right now.

“We want to see kids not wearing masks, too,” Brooks said. “We want to see their faces again. And we are hoping that can happen sooner rather than later.”

He also said deciding to stay the course was a very difficult decision.

“We completely understand parents and students’ frustrations. We’re all just as frustrated,” Brooks said. “Not only professionally, but personally, as our board members and I have kids, too, whom have been affected by all of this.”

Brooks also urged the public to remember some students, families and staff in the SJO community have valid concerns about masks not being required in the schools due to health issues.

“There are two sides to this issue,” Brooks said. “We greatly respect anyone who has their own health concerns regarding this virus. Even if the majority of people don’t have those concerns, these are real and valid health concerns from some.”
SJO Principal Gary Page speaks with any student not wearing a mask. Brooks said the district is asking students to give the school a little more time to see how the appeal of the court case plays out.  

Brooks said the students at SJO have been incredible through the pandemic.  

“I can’t sing their praises enough,” he said. “I have so much respect for how they have handled themselves as young adults during a very difficult time. I’m sure there are many that don’t want to wear them right now, as they probably haven’t wanted
to wear them for quite some time, but they have complied for the most part.”

St. Joseph Grade School
Superintendent Todd Pence also sent an email to parents on Sunday saying the district would continue to follow the mask mandate.

“We are following our attorney’s recommendation to stay the status quo until it works its way through the courts,” Pence said.

Pence said the only answer for the district was to follow the advice of their attorney.

“Obviously this isn’t a decision anyone wants to have to make,” he said. “The State and courts have put us in the middle of this and our only answer is to follow our legal advice.”

Pence said he felt the majority of the parents were supportive of the district’s decision. Pence said if students came to school unmasked on Monday the parents were given the option of having them wear a mask and stay at school or take them home.
“We had a handful of parents decide to take them home,” he said.

Parents in the Prairieview-Ogden school district were told on Sunday night via email that masks are optional within the district. In an email, PVO Superintendent Jeff Isenhower said while the district was going optional on wearing masks, the following was non-negotiable.

  1. Students must absolutely keep their children home if they are showing any signs and symptoms. Contact the school and follow the minimum five-day quarantine rule set forth by IDPH.
  2. Any student that test positive for COVID-19 and has stayed home may return after day five if there are no symptoms but, they must mask and socially distance when eating or drinking for five more days.
  3. Students showing signs of illness will be sent home.
  4. If numbers jump out of line they reserve the right to reinstitute the mask mandate.

Isenhower said PVO was discussing making masks optional in the fall before the governor made a mandate.

“A large majority of our families prefer mask optional,” he said. “It was a difficult decision. The masking issue has been very divisive everywhere.”

Isenhower said it was nice seeing the faces of some kindergarten and first grade students who have never had a day in school unmasked, but there were students who wore masks to school also and the district is stressing respecting the different choices that families have made.

Isenhower said the back and forth with mandates and regulations has been difficult for administrators and school board members.

“The courts and the politicians have set the schools up to be battlegrounds with the children as pawns,” he said, “and that is a huge disservice to our children.”

Heritage Superintendent Tom Davis said the school attorney and insurance company helped influence his decision to require Heritage students to wear masks on Monday.

“More feedback and guidance started coming in from our school attorney and our insurance company that pushed more the direction of staying the course until more comes out from this lawsuit and whether there would be a state response and appeal,” Davis said. “Also, the IASA, which is our Illinois Association of School Administrators, had a live webinar with their attorneys who seemed to echo what I had already heard from our attorney and insurance company.”

Davis said the Heritage School Board also supported the decision to stay the course until the case works its way through the courts.

“I did tell the members we can hold an emergency meeting with short notice if they do feel they want to meet, discuss, and vote at any time to go optional as this plays out in Sangamon County but all seemed good with staying the course for now.”

Davis said he felt the majority of the Heritage staff were satisfied with the district’s decision and the students were treating the day as any other school day.

“They just seemed happy to be back after three days missed last week,” he said.  “No one objected directly and I was concerned there would be pushback. I observed everyone happy to be back and no one seemed to communicate any issues with staying the course.”

Davis said no high school students have voiced concerns to him about the mask mandate.

“Kids can approach me any time to voice their thoughts and they do trust me to do that,” Davis said. “I’ll be honest, I had some sleep anxiety last night and was concerned as I dressed for school early this morning but that was not borne out.”

Davis said he did receive two emails from parents with concerns but they resulted in productive conversations.

 Davis said the changing mandates can be frustrating.

“We have been making decisions and adjusting to things for 23 months now that no one had ever made before or was prepared for with COVID,” he said.   “It is tough, but worth it for what we do in K-12 education.”

Davis said the parents, staff, and students have been great dealing with all the changes.

“The thing that has come out, again and again, is that our parents and students and teachers and staff have been fantastic and resilient throughout this two-year process.  We have had approaching 300 days of in-person school the last two years at Heritage and that is because we have dedicated stakeholders who have worked hard for their kids to be in school every day possible.”

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