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District 161 discussing mask flexibility in light of court ruling (free)

Students in Flossmoor District 161 may see a big change in COVID-19 safety protocols soon.

The district’s board met on Feb. 14 to begin talks on dropping mask requirements after a circuit court judge in Sangamon County ruled neither Gov. J.B. Pritzker nor the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) have the power to impose statewide mask mandates.

Superintendent Dana Smith opened the conversation with the assertion the district would keep the “safety of students and staff at the forefront” when determining how to move forward, then put forth a target date of March 14 for potentially allowing students and staff to remove their masks.

According to a document attached to the board’s agenda, mask “flexibility” would be accompanied by continued social distancing; continued if not possibly increased SHIELD testing; and the Test To Stay program in which close contacts of confirmed cases undergo BinaxNOW testing on days one, three and five to remain in school rather than quarantining under presumed-positive policies.

Board members seemed to support the idea of removing the mask requirement but raised questions about timing and execution.

Janelle Scharon expressed concern that flexibility may lead to social friction between students who choose to continue wearing masks and those who choose to remove them.

Board Vice President Cameron Nelson called for a “middle ground” approach to transitioning out of the mandate and also questioned what criteria would exist for reinstating mask usage should COVID-19 case numbers rise again in the future.

Spring break was mentioned by both a parent who attended the meeting and members of the board, citing past case spikes that have coincided with travel during school breaks. A March 14 mask flexibility enactment would remove the mandate two weeks before students and staff adjourn for Spring Break in the district.

Board member Michael Rouse II said, “In a community environment like a school … the most important thing is we place a high emphasis on safely removing the masks.”

Smith said he and the board will consider all questions that were raised then reconvene on Feb. 28 for further discussion. Parents and community members are encouraged to attend the meeting held at the district office at 6 p.m. Masks and sign-in are required.

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