Statewide COVID-19 school mandates draw ire of superintendents

Statewide COVID-19 school mandates draw ire of superintendents

A group of school district superintendents called on the Illinois State Board of Education to oppose statewide mask and other mandates, letting local schools decide how best to handle COVID-19 mitigation.

Statewide school mandates should end and local control resume when deciding how best to handle COVID-19, a coalition of school district superintendents told the Illinois State Board of Education.

Superintendents representing school districts in central and southern Illinois gathered Nov. 18 at the state board meeting to express frustration with Gov. J.B Pritzker’s statewide school mask mandate.

They told board members schools would be better served by relying on local metrics to decide what’s best for their students. They also said they are seeing a swell in parent protests over the state’s one-size-fits-all approach.

“The tensions in our community still exist, and are starting to rise again,” said Curt Nettles, superintendent of Clinton Community Unit School District 15. “We want to move forward and not feel helpless and hopeless … We need local control on more issues in the future.”

Tim Arnold, superintendent of Will County School District 92, said with children ages 5 and up now eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, the Illinois Department of Public Health’s pandemic metrics should include “a clear finish line” for Illinois schools.

“We take COVID mitigations seriously,” Arnold said. When Pritzker issued the mask mandate in August, he said “it made sense.”

“But the difference is now, we have the vaccine.”

Regional Superintendent Kyle Thompson, whose school districts cover multiple counties around Charleston, Illinois, said the state needs a “removal of mandates in all forms, not just COVID-19 related.” He said local leaders make the best decisions based on local conditions.

Thompson said he worries the impact of contact tracing and repeat quarantines at Illinois schools has led to “more mental health hospitalizations” than children hospitalized with the virus.

“Kids in Illinois feel like they’re being singled out,” said Bluffs and Winchester Schools Superintendent Kevin Blankenship, pointing out that Midwestern states such as Kentucky and Indiana boast far less-restrictive COVID-19 policies for schools.

“The kids are telling us, ‘Go and fight for us,’” Blankenship said.

El Paso Gridley Community Unit School District 11 Superintendent Brian Kurz said local school boards and administrators should make decisions affecting students, not the state.

“The frustration is real and it’s growing. … Where is the light at the end of the tunnel?” Kurz said.

Responding to the superintendents’ pleas, Illinois State Board of Education Superintendent Carmen Ayala said she plans to meet with Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike to discuss the lingering impact of COVID-19 in Illinois schools.

“I’m a colleague who has walked in your shoes, and I’m walking with you during the pandemic,” Ayala told the superintendents. “We all continue to fight this pandemic at every level. We will get out of the pandemic and move forward.”

State board members agreed to hold public discussions in the coming weeks over changes to due process for schools defying state mandates.

The move comes after the state board reversed course on a policy that immediately revoked state recognition of private schools flouting mandates, while granting public schools a 60-day probationary period.

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