Ptacek: Dist 117 Has No Other Option Than to Follow Mandate

By Jeremy Coumbes on September 16, 2021 at 9:53am

Jacksonville School District 117’s only option is to comply with the state’s testing mandate.

That was the core response by District Superintendent Steve Ptacek to a recent letter sent to the school board stating that the state’s mandating of weekly testing of unvaccinated staff is a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The letter was signed by 29 staff and more than 60 concerned citizens who asked for their voices to be heard for a possible solution to the matter.

Several members of the small crowd gathered at the meeting voiced those concerns after Ptacek read his written response to the letter. Ptacek says the district respects individuals on both sides of the issue.

He says he personally as well as the district as a whole regularly receives communications saying that the district is not doing enough and should force vaccinations, all the way to any mitigation efforts are a violation of civil rights.

Ptacek says after speaking with legal counsel and insurance representatives, the district has no other option than to follow the mandates laid out by the state.

The point I was trying to make tonight is that this is an executive order that is carrying the weight of the removal of our recognition status behind it. We are not taking a political stance, we will remain politically neutral. But at this point in time, we have no option other than to follow that executive order.

Very different from the mask mandate which based upon last year’s success with masks and social distancing, we made a decision to mandate masks before the executive order. This current executive order about vaccination and testing, I can guarantee I would not have brought that to our school board as an option. We didn’t need it last year and we were successful.

But at this point in time after spending the last couple of weeks in in-depth meetings and discussions with multiple attorneys and multiple groups, and how the legislature is actually empowering ISBE to make even more decisions currently in the last couple days, we don’t have an option.”

Ptacek says the district will follow the mandates because that is the way the district honors its fiduciary responsibility to its taxpayers.

Ptacek says currently the executive order by Governor J.B. Pritzker, and the F.A.Q. of that order states clearly there are no religious exemptions for testing, however, there still are exemptions for vaccination. He says from the state’s position they are not honoring religious exemptions on testing nor would they honor any if District 117 allowed the exemptions.

He says he is frustrated that the mandates have put school districts on the front line of the legal arguments when the State of Illinois and public officials should be the ones facing and answering those questions.

I do think that the Governor’s Office, IDPH, ISBE have placed school districts in an absolutely horrible position by being the ones that are shouldering the legal burden of many of these questions such as can a county health department quarantine beyond forty-eight hours, as was done in Adams County and Macoupin County.

And now this issue of what does exclusion mean under the executive order, when quite honestly those issues could be solved at the governor level or the legislature level, and they’re in session.

So I am pleading our governor, our legislature to do some small changes that clarify those issues and put the districts in a much more defensible position in following mandates that we did not create.”

Ptacek says the district’s legal counsel has advised that if the district were to allow an exemption for testing, mask-wearing, and the like that went against the mandates, someone suing the district due to the spread of the virus would have a much greater chance in court than someone suing over personal rights.

He says their insurance company advisers have also stated since the beginning of the pandemic that if the district does not follow the recommendations outlined by the State of Illinois, the district’s insurance would not cover any claims or legal filings brought against the district.

He says regardless of what the personal beliefs of any member of the district is, District 117 has no other choice than to follow the mandates, and he hopes the state will clarify these issues for everyone involved as soon as possible.

Below is the full statement from Steve Ptacek:

Good afternoon,

This week we received a letter from a group of staff and community members concerned with the implementation of the Governor’s Executive Order 2021-20 mandating that all district staff provide proof of vaccination or are weekly tested for the virus.

A number of those concerned individuals attended last night’s Board of Education meeting. At the meeting I read a written response to that letter. I want to thank those that attended for bringing their concerns to the Board, for their willingness to listen to my response, for asking poignant questions in a respectful manner, and for allowing me to respond to those questions.

Based on the conversations we had last night, I have added some further information into this response that I am sharing with the entire community.

You can find the letter on our public board book page linked below. If you scroll to the “State Update” section of the agenda, it is listed as “Employee Statement on Testing”.

Before I begin my response to this communication, I want to note that as of our last tally, 83.6% of our staff is vaccinated. That is an incredibly high percentage compared to other employers, school districts throughout the state, and most communities.

This letter was signed by 26 of the over 630 full time or year-round contractual employees the district hires. Given that this is less than 4% of our staff, and that over 83% of our staff are vaccinated, this letter does not represent the “voice” of our staff. Also, the Governor’s Executive Order has the support of both the IEA and IFT teachers’ unions. Many, if not most, teachers see this as an way to make their work environment safer.

I need to clarify several issues that were mentioned in this letter for both the Board and the community.

First, there isn’t any “wiggle room” on this issue as argued in the letter. The reality is that if we do not follow this Executive Order we risk the very real possibility of having our recognition status removed by the ISBE. Public school districts that defied the previous Executive Order on mask mandates were placed on probation.

Forty-two of those districts changed their stance and are now requiring masks; four public schools are currently still on probation and will very likely lose their recognition status when the probation period elapses. Private schools do not need any probation period and the ISBE has removed the recognition status of nine private schools.

Losing recognition status has adverse implications for all districts including the loss of accredited diplomas and the loss of athletics, but public schools face other severe consequences including the loss of funding, both state and local.

This week, there is proposed legislation to expand the authority of the ISBE to enforce public health guidelines in schools. This will make it easier for the ISBE to revoke recognition status. It also allows other sanctions such as mandating a move to full remote instruction until a district can prove it will follow health mandates.

At the meeting last night, I stated that I don’t think our entire community will support a move to full remote in defiance of this Executive Order. In serving the interest of the entire community, we must follow the Order.

Here is a link to an article on this issue:

Let me restate that there is not any “wiggle room” on this issue.

While we did make the decision on masks, this new mandate is not our decision. Based on the success of our mask and social distancing protocols from last year, the JSD117 Board of Education and I were prepared to replicate our procedures this year in order to keep our students in school. The Board passed our mask mandate prior to the Governor issuing his Executive Order mandating masks.

However, the mask issue is very different from this new of vaccination or testing issue. We were successful last year without any vaccination or testing mandate; therefore, I would not have initiated this mandate.

Second, the letter argues that “… JSD117 has the moral obligation to protect the rights of its colleagues.” Others would argue that we have a moral obligation to keep our staff and students safe. This is not a clearly defined moral issue. It is entirely clouded in shades of gray because, on this issue, moral obligation is an abstract term that alters based on each individual’s beliefs and perceptions.

This summer, we issued a survey to all staff, students, and parents asking for their thoughts on mandating masks in our schools. The results from the survey reinforce the uncertainty of this moral debate. This community is split on the issue. The results were exactly 50/50.

We best serve our entire community by continuing to “stay in our lane” and not becoming involved in the larger political context. JSD117 will remain politically neutral. We do that by continuing to follow expected guidelines and protocols regardless of our personal opinions.

Third, the author of the letter doesn’t grasp that the school district does not determine the guidelines on quarantines and testing. As confirmed in both the recent Macoupin and Adams County Court rulings, school districts do not have the authority to quarantine students or staff. Quarantines are issued by the local health department. Testing requirements to stay or return to work are also determined by the local health department.

The author quotes the times that I have communicated to the staff or the community that individuals that are vaccinated do not need to be quarantined unless they start showing symptoms. The author includes the CDC guidelines and argues that I am not fully following the CDC guidelines in an attempt to show our practices have the “wiggle room” that would allow us to not follow the Executive Order. This is an attempt to argue that I am basically “picking and choosing” what CDC guidelines to follow.

What the author fails to realize is that our current protocols on who gets quarantined, when people can return from quarantine, and other factors such as testing requirements following exposure are all determined by the Morgan County Health Department. The MCHD has been amazing in developing protocols that have allowed JSD117 to stay in school. For the most part, we have agreed on how the State guidelines have been implemented, but when we have had any disagreement, Morgan County Health has made the final call.

We have consistently followed the guidelines as developed by our local health department.

Fourth, the author states that my comments are “coercive in nature”. Here are my statements from emails and Facebook posts quoted in the letter:

“Vaccinated individuals do not need to be quarantined if they are in close contact with a positive case. I feel this is extremely important information that everyone should know.”

“I need to add to the legend that if someone is vaccinated they do not need to quarantine if they are in close contact to a positive case or someone that has symptoms.”

“… We are working with Morgan County Health Department to offer vaccinations for our eligible students. This will be completely voluntary and will require parent permission. Doing this helps fulfill our goal of keeping students in school. The more students and staff vaccinated means a smaller number of quarantines.”

“Once again, fully vaccinated individuals will not need to be quarantined if they are in close contact with a positive case.”

I want to highlight that my comments are facts. They also directly relate to helping reduce our quarantines and keeping students and staff in school which has been our top priority since COVID began.

Also, the author chose to not include wording from each communication that demonstrates the intent to issue information and not coerce. The full paragraph from one of the above quotes is “I am not sending this to argue for vaccinations, I am simply informing the community on this important topic. We are working with Morgan County Health Department to offer vaccinations for our eligible students. This will be completely voluntary and will require parent permission.”

I work closely with several people that have chosen to not be vaccinated. I have demonstrated my respect and support for their decision on a routine basis.

The author of this letter has carefully “picked and chosen” the language to make a coercive but inaccurate argument.

Lastly, the author spends substantial time presenting their view on the science and legal ramifications behind this Executive Order. I have spent a tremendous amount of time in the last month discussing these issues with multiple attorneys. At this time, it is in our best legal interest to follow the Executive Order.

Regarding the science discussion, that isn’t in our lane. I will leave that discussion to the actual experts and to all of the other experts Facebook and Google have created.

Steve Ptacek