The Jacksonville School Board meeting held a wide range of emotions last night concerning the statewide school mask mandate.
The district moved to a mask-optional policy last week in the wake of a temporary restraining order administered by Sangamon County Judge Raylene Grischow. District 117 was named in that lawsuit brought by several parents and teachers from around the state. Yesterday, the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules or JCAR struck down the Illinois Department of Public Health’s attempt to re-up the mask mandate for schools across the entire state.
Jacksonville High School Freshman Leviana Moody spoke to the school board last night detailing irreparable emotional and mental harm that masks have had on her educational and social development for the last two years from a student’s perspective. Her mother Trista Moody and former teacher Cheryl Kelly echoed those concerns in follow up comments to the board asking how the board would move forward in a world without masks and full of mentally damaged students and teachers caused by the masks and the traumas caused by COVID-19 mitigations and the virus itself.
Superintendent Steve Ptacek got emotional when speaking about his own two children, who are also students in the district. Ptacek feels that Ms. Moody summed up the arguments from a student’s perspective quite well: “Ms. Moody did a phenomenal job of representing a major concern that both kids and parents have had, and she definitely touched a nerve knowing that I’ve got two students that are juniors and seniors in high school. My [oldest] kid’s last two and a half years of his high school experience have been not ruined. He’s enjoyed them…but just altered in such a major fashion. It definitely hit an emotional part within me. I’ve been in the unfortunate position over the last couple of years to have to analyze risk and make decisions that I personally, at time, don’t agree with but my personal feelings…that’s not my job. My job is to analyze risk, analyze situations, try to keep kids in school, and bring that information to the board so they as a group can ultimately make the decision with my recommendations. I’m not going to shy away from those. The emotion of the last two years have hit a lot of people now, and I hope that’s one of those good signs that it’s at the end of it so that it’s time to breathe a sigh of relief. Then, we can reflect on the impact that this thing has had on us. I think when you are caught in the middle of it, when you’re in the middle of the race, you just keep moving forward. I think that the feeling that we could be at the end is allowing a lot of emotions from a lot of people to come out.”
District 117 School Board members Brenda Stewart and Teresa Wilson also brought up their own personal reflections with their families on the pandemic and hope that the world is on the down side of the pandemic. Ptacek and the board commended both sides of the issues, the staff, the faculty, and the nursing staff for their work throughout the pandemic.
Ptacek hopes for a clear ruling from the Appellate Court in the coming days. He says that the mask issue has turned away from a scientific one and into a political one: “This is not about health. This is not about education. This is 100% right now about politics, and schools are being put in the middle. I have to watch what I fully say because we are included in the lawsuit, but anybody who is closely involved with this knows that’s absolutely what’s going on right now. The most disturbing part of this is that it doesn’t seem that the kids are at all a focus. It’s about politics, and that’s from both sides, and that needs to stop.”
Ptacek said during the meeting that some parents have asked about remote options for students who are in fear of coming to school. He says that it will not be an option in District 117 because of not only the district’s stance but the Illinois State Board of Education stressing the importance of in-person learning. The only action taken on the issue was that Ptacek is going to be amending language in the district’s dress code to allow for masks to be worn by those who wish to wear them for their own health or personal reasons. He told the board he would be finalizing language on masks in the dress code in the coming days to ensure that the masks that are worn are not a personal fashion choice but for health and personal reasons only.