Earlier this week, St. Joseph Grade School, St. Joseph Middle School and St. Joseph-Ogden High School changed their decisions to keep a mask mandate in place for students amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Masks are now optional at all three schools, with those decisions reached on Tuesday night in light of a temporary restraining order granted by a Springfield judge last Friday.
And the reaction was mixed from several parents who have students in those schools.
Adam Hall, who has a 7-year-old daughter who attends St. Joseph Grade School, said he is unhappy with the school’s decision.
“I believe the decision of the schools to disregard the safety of our children is irresponsible at best, and cowardice at worse,” he said.
Hall said the district claims to care about the safety of the children but its decisions prove otherwise.
“The only thing they care about is their own safety from the opponents of the mask mandates,” he said. “They would rather succumb to the legal pressure being applied by the anti-mask population.”
Other parents agreed.
Amber Anderson, who has children in the St. Joseph Grade School District, said she feels the district made a rash decision to appease certain parents.
“The changing position of the school makes me feel like if you are loud enough and cause a big enough of a stir, then you can get your way, regardless of the science and data,” she said. “If the school was truly interested in hearing feedback from all parents, and not just the ones raising a huge fuss, particularly on Facebook, then they should have kept their policies in place like originally stated, and done a parent survey or open meeting. Instead, they changed their minds to appease a group of people that may or may not represent the school’s population.”
Siannah Hogan said the back and forth was confusing, especially for little children, like her son who attends the Spectrum preschool program housed at St. Joseph Grade School. Masks are not required in the Spectrum program but are required at his daycare and on his bus to preschool.
“As a 3-year old, he doesn’t totally understand why he can have it off at this school, but not at the other,” she said. “I think it’s still too new of a decision and the inconsistency of where and when he is required to wear one is difficult.”
Hogan’s daughter attends St. Joseph Grade School. Hogan told her on Wednesday morning the masks were optional. Hogan said her daughter was confused why masks were suddenly optional since they often talked about the benefits of masks in schools and daycares and they were mandated as recently as Tuesday.
“As for my daughter, I could tell there was some uncomfortability and she ultimately decided to bring one along ‘just in case’,” Hogan said.
Hall said his family strongly believes in listening to medical professionals instead of “doing their own research,” he said, and expects their daughter to wear a mask at school.
“My partner is as upset as I am with the decision regarding masks,” he said. “We’ve told our daughter the expectation we have of her is to wear her mask even when others are not. We expect her to rise above peer pressure and keep herself and everyone around her safe. She has a better grasp on the situation and the importance of masks than most of the people in our community.”
Many parents said they still had questions about the mask optional policy. Hogan wanted to know if this was a permanent change or if there was a possibility of masks being required again and how the school would enforce that if it happened.
“It took some training and continued conversations to ‘Keep your mask on’ only to potentially have this battle all over again because they stopped wearing them for a bit,” she said.
Anderson said she didn’t view the mask mandate as anything different than vaccines students are required to have before entering school to keep from spreading communicable diseases, particularly to students and staff unable to get the vaccines. She thought the school should enforce the mandate.
“Schools already have certain health protocols in place so that specific groups of students that are at higher risk aren’t needlessly put in harm’s way,” she said.
Anderson also pointed out the district has at least two other policies that are intended to limit interruptions in the educational process and promote student safety. These policies focus on dress codes and no glass containers at lunch.
“As the science has shown, masks help reduce the spread of COVID, which promotes student safety, and quarantining disrupts the educational process both for faculty and students,” she said. “The policy requiring masks fully aligns with school values as well as other district values and thus cannot be ignored. As educators, we are supposed to be teaching our students to use science and facts as foundations. This is a blatant disregard of them.”
Anderson also asked how the district would keep track of who was masked and unmasked in case of an exposure to the virus.
“Do teachers now have to keep track of who wears a mask and when so that proper contact tracing can occur?” she said. “More students not wearing masks means more students exposed and quarantined, which will disrupt the educational process and cause more work and stress on the faculty and parents and particularly a burden for parents that work outside of the home.”
Hall said he thought the back and forth decisions of the districts were only prolonging the pandemic.
“We wouldn’t be in this situation if the pandemic wasn’t politicized when it began,” he said. “We had toxic leadership at every level of government that prevented the spread of truthful information and increased the spread of the virus. The pandemic has strained an already stressed system and showed the cracks in our society.”
Hall said he keeps seeing comments online talking about the quality of life during the pandemic but he feels people fail to realize 900,000 people just in the United States have died from COVID-19 in the last 23 months.
“They don’t care that many of these people were otherwise healthy and had a life ahead of them,” he said. “When we don’t require our kids to wear masks at school, they increase their risk of exposure and bringing it home to families. It puts everyone in an impossible situation that has a solution but the powers that be refuse to put in place.”
Dawn Miller Shoviak has a child who attends St. Joseph-Ogden High School. Shoviak said she feels the high school has done a great job throughout the pandemic and she has supported all the decisions they have made including going every other day at the beginning of the pandemic, masking and social distancing.
“I don’t doubt they’ve been under considerable pressure to ease up on restrictions, and am glad they’ve persisted as long as they have,” she said.
Miller said she believes the state government has let down the districts that have really tried to adhere to restrictions by not having any sort of plan or metrics to ease restrictions.
“It’s clear from being in other parts of the state that a lot of other towns, including schools, haven’t been enforcing rules,” she said. “So that puts extra pressure on our administrators from people who don’t want to wear masks.”
Miller said she thinks the school’s decision to go mask optional was inevitable, especially with other states lifting mask mandates in schools.
“I also recognize the absurdity of being at school events and at sporting events and seeing lots of people being very lax about wearing masks,” she said. “I told my daughter (the other) night that it was up to her on whether she wore one or not. I told her that I thought she was safe considering that she was recovered, vaccinated and boosted, but that she should carry a mask and be respectful of anybody that isn’t comfortable being around unmasked people.”
Stephanie Houston has a child at SJO as well. Houston was happy that masks are now optional, and said she doesn’t believe masks stop the spread of COVID-19.
“I have worked frontline healthcare for two years with a mask and contracted COVID from a positive unit I worked one night,” she said. “So we can stop pretending like they do.”
Houston said her biggest issue was that schools have been a direct target of Gov. J.B. Pritzker during the pandemic.
“They are the only ones he can truly control with threats of stripping accreditations and funding,” she said. “They have been masked for two solid years while all other states around us let this farce go about a year and a half ago and their numbers are no different than our own.”
Houston said she felt the school mask mandate was a form of control for the governor.
“Kids have suffered oxygen depletion, acne breakouts, lack of social development by not seeing expressions, mental anxiety, and anguish, and it’s distressing for our kids with disabilities to handle the claustrophobic masks for eight hours a day,” she said. “We are all different in breathing capacity and some people just can’t handle them.”
Houston said she didn’t feel people who wanted to choose if they wore a mask or not were selfish.
“The only ones who are selfish regarding masks are the ones who can’t think about others forced to wear them against their will and the struggles that nobody seems to care they have,” she said.
Houston said she asked her daughter if she was excited to not have to wear a mask and her daughter said she was taking a mask to school just in case.
“She doesn’t mind wearing them because as a teenage girl she has her insecurities and feels it covers her chin shape she doesn’t like,” Houston said. “She has never really had a problem with wearing them. That’s where her and I differ but again, all I ever wanted was the choice to choose.”
Houston said if the mask mandate is reinstated after the case works its way through the court system, she will feel frustrated.
“Like our progress is going backward and like this will never stop and like we will forever live in captivity in this dictatorship of one man making our health decisions,” she said. “I’m sure the kids will feel the same way, frustrated with all this confusing nonsense.”
Houston said it would be especially confusing when the statewide indoor mask mandate is lifted on Feb. 28 and she was sure students would feel the same way, especially when bars, concerts and athletic events would suddenly be deemed safe.
“Clearly seeing the farce play out before them, who’s running the show for political purposes, and hopefully forming opinions of what they don’t want to vote for more of in the future. At least, that’s what I hope they feel,” she said.
Cathy Franklin, who has children at St. Joseph Grade School and St. Joseph Middle School, said her family was excited to be given the choice to go maskless at school.
“We are happy that now all families have the choice to decide what they believe is best for their kids,” she said.
Franklin said they have kept conversations with their children neutral when it comes to masking.
“We see the importance of them being able to form their own opinions,” she said. “We have seen the evidence that cloth masks are not effective in preventing COVID transmission, especially the omicron variant.”
Franklin said her children were excited to go to school without their masks but also had concerns as to how others may view them for deciding not to wear one.
Franklin said she is understanding of the difficult position the schools have been put in.
“We honestly feel that all schools have been put in the middle of something very difficult and have to follow guidelines that are constantly changing and sometimes make no sense,” she said. “When it comes to our children, we have to do what we feel is best for them and sometimes that doesn’t align with rules or guidelines that are put in place. I would like to see more communication happening between the administration and parents and would encourage parents to reach out to the board or administrators if they have concerns.”