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District 153 continues its mask mandate

Gabriel Cohn, a fifth grader at Churchill School, urged the District 153 school board to continue its mask mandate. (Marilyn Thomas/H-F Chronicle)

The District 153 school board voted at a special board meeting Sunday, Feb. 6, to continue its mask mandate and other COVID-19 protocols for students, staff and visitors at Willow, Churchill and James Hart Schools.

In an orderly fashion, more than a dozen people addressed the board. The majority asked that the mask mandates continue. They also thanked school board members for all they’ve done to keep schools open.

Churchill School fifth grader Gabriel Cohn addressed the board, urging a continuation of the mask mandate.

“I personally think we should keep doing what we have been doing … It should be a no-brainer that the protocols stay in place. (The virus) is affecting countless other people, not just you. Disregarding these measures is how we get mutations, like Omicron. It would be plain foolish to stop now,” Gabriel said, adding wearing a mask isn’t that difficult and a mask helps to keep him and others safe.

The board meeting was in response to a Sangamon County judge’s decision on Friday, Feb. 4, to lift the vaccine and mask mandates ordered by Gov. J.B. Pritzker. The court decision directly impacts 140 school districts in Illinois that signed on to the lawsuit. District 153 was not one of those districts.

Superintendent Scott McAlister said he recommended the school board state its position on the mandates to avoid any issues when students return to their classrooms Monday, Feb. 7. The superintendent said the school board has relied on information from medical experts who recommend vaccines and masking as safety measures to limit the spread of COVID-19.

School board president Shelly Marks said the country will soon mark the second anniversary of measures designed to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools and businesses immediately shut down March 13, 2020, to reduce the spread of the virus.

In the 2020-21 school year, students learned remotely. This school year students returned to their classrooms with mask mandates. Pediatric doses of the vaccine have been made available to children ages 5 to 17.

“I will tell you this is a very heavy responsibility to keep our schools safe and healthy and not one that any of us take likely. And quite frankly, we’ve all lost sleep over it. Time and again we’re relying on medical professionals,” Marks said.

Board member Ron Zinnerman said: “We did not make initial decisions based on courtrooms. We took our time. We looked at the facts. We looked at the data. And to be frank with you, darn if we do, darn if we don’t, so we took the perspective of darn if we do.”

Zinnerman, who lost relatives to COVID-19, said making these decisions is tough, but “ultimately you have to take into consideration everyone else but yourself.”

The district is making SHIELD testing available weekly to staff and students. McAlister said between 85% and 90% of the student body participates in SHIELD testing, a saliva-based test that can detect COVID-19 and its variants in symptomatic, pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic people.

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