To Mask Or Not To Mask? School Board Debates Heat Up As Fall Looms

School districts across Illinois are grappling with whether to require masks for unvaccinated students or to go “mask optional.”

A Chicago Public Schools first grader wears her mask during the first week back for in-person learning on March 4, 2021. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
A Chicago Public Schools first grader wears her mask during the first week back for in-person learning on March 4, 2021. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

To Mask Or Not To Mask? School Board Debates Heat Up As Fall Looms

School districts across Illinois are grappling with whether to require masks for unvaccinated students or to go “mask optional.”

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As the clock ticks toward the start of the new academic year, school districts across Illinois are debating whether to require their youngest learners to mask up. Wednesday night, it was Barrington 220 School District’s turn.

At a rowdy five-hour meeting in the northwest suburb, parents lined up on one of two sides: Strong backers of a mask requirement for the district’s elementary school students and those in the so-called “mask optional” camp — they want each family to make their own choice.

A number of medical professionals backed universal masking. Parent and physician Kadijah Ray says parents should have choice, but not when it can impact others.

“Maybe you choose not to make them wear a bicycle helmet. They crash. The injury is personal to your family. Your child, your choice,” she said. “That is not applicable in a worldwide pandemic where your choices have a potential negative impact on your neighbors and the community at large.”

But mask optional supporters outnumbered the others in the crowd. Many young children in the audience wore red shirts that said “Please Don’t Make Me Wear A Mask.”

Scott Popovich told board members he’s seen a rise in mental health issues in the pediatric intensive care unit where he works. He urged the school district to let parents choose whether their kids should be masked or not.

“I’ve seen double the amount of suicides attempts in my PICU largely related to a loss of hope, with the masks contributing to that,” Popovich said.

Large numbers of parents and community members turned out for a Barrington 200 School District board meeting on its masking policy on July 21, 2021. Susie An / WBEZ

Barrington is the latest local school district to take up the question of whether masks should be required this fall. Districts around the state, including in suburban Wheaton and St. Charles, already decided to make masks optional for all students, including kids younger than 12 that aren’t eligible to be vaccinated. Organized groups are showing up to school board meetings to present a united front against masks.

Barrington’s school board ended Wednesday without a vote. However, the board indicated the school year would begin with a mask requirement, but it could be made optional later.

Another approach on the table recommends unvaccinated students wear masks, but only requires them when three feet of distance isn’t possible. Masks would be mandated for bus rides, hallways and large student assemblies.

The school board already voted last week to make masks optional for 6-12th grade students in the district, which has 9,000 kids in pre-K through 12th grade.

These mask debates come after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released guidelines earlier this month that recommend all unvaccinated students wear a face covering while in school. The CDC is prioritizing full in-person learning for the upcoming year, and that comes with a push that all eligible students 12 and older get the COVID-19 vaccine. This also comes as the more contagious delta variant has become the dominant COVID-19 strain in the country.

The Illinois Department of Public Health embraced the CDC’s updated guidelines the same day they were released. Gov. JB Pritzker is encouraging schools to follow the CDC guidelines, but says school districts can make the best decisions for their communities.

Earlier this week at a U-46 board meeting in northwest suburban Elgin, the district said it strongly recommends middle and high school students wear masks, though it is optional. Elementary school students will still be required to use a face covering. U-46 is asking parents to share students’ vaccination status and to allow unvaccinated students to participate in regular COVID tests. Neither are required.

Parents like Gloria Duran told the district that mask requirements are a political decision. She urged the school board to reconsider.

“Our children are mandated to wear a mask for six hours straight, including during recess and 80 degree weather,” Gloria Duran said. “Common sense tells me this safety measure isn’t benefiting our children and stead, potentially endangering them. How long will U-46 subject their students to this inhumane mask mandate?”

People in support of mask optional policies were met with cheers and applause.

But parents like Megan Larson said masks are a necessary health precaution and backed by science. She feels the district isn’t doing enough to mitigate the risk.

“Unfortunately, because of the pandemic and U-46 policies we have to withdraw our student. You’re putting students and families at risk,” Larson said. “We can’t gamble our lives on the fact that others won’t take the most basic precautions to keep each other safe.”

In a weekly letter to school districts, State Schools Superintendent Carmen Ayala recognized that policy choices for the upcoming school year are left to local districts.

“The CDC’s guidance recommends that if school administrators decide to remove any of the prevention strategies for their school based on local conditions, they should remove them one at a time and monitor closely (with adequate testing through the school and/or community) for any increases in COVID-19 cases,” she wrote.

Ayala continues to encourage students to get vaccinated and for schools to adopt a free COVID testing program.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is recommending universal masking be required at schools. The AAP said not enough students are eligible for the vaccine, and with complications with COVID variants, students are still at risk.

“The trope that ‘our kids have been through enough, why are we going to torture them with masking,’ is playing on emotions but then leading to the false conclusion,” said Dr. Eve Bloomgarden, a physician at Northwestern Medicine.

Bloomgarden is co-founder of IMPACT, an Illinois-based coalition of healthcare professionals. They’ve heard from colleagues around the state and country about a movement pushing school boards to adopt mask optional policies. She says some of these groups are spreading false or incomplete information.

“It’s alarming, but also it’s very disappointing that this is even a narrative that’s being given any sort of airtime,” Bloomgarden said.

She agrees that full in-person learning should be prioritized, but schools need to take all the safety precautions to make sure schools can remain open.

“Putting our children in an environment where they’re indoors, in-person, interacting without masks is basically saying that we are OK with our children getting sick and bringing it home to their families and spreading it,” Bloomgarden said.

IMPACT started a petition urging the CDC and state and local governments to require universal masking in schools. The petition has collected more than 15,000 signatures since it started on Monday.

Bloomgarden says there are unique cases where most school staff and older students will be vaccinated. Those schools can consider a mask optional policy.

“It gives everyone a goal to move towards,” she said. “If everyone in your school gets vaccinated, as we hope that they do, then yes, masking becomes less important.”

She says leaving the decision to local school districts doesn’t seem to be working. She says the responsibility needs to be put on those who have the public health expertise.

Susie An covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @soosieon.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misattributed a quote from an School District U-46 board meeting. The story has been corrected to attribute the quote to Gloria Duran.