For months, local school districts have prepared to take control of their COVID-19 mitigations. Following a series of legal decisions in February, they now have that opportunity.
The New Trier High School District 203 and Wilmette Public Schools D39 boards of education each will consider moving to mask-optional environments during their respective meetings on Tuesday, Feb. 22.
Administration of both districts prepared resolutions that outline reduced COVID-19 safety measures, including the recommended but not mandatory indoor masking of students and staff members.
Since the start of the school year, schools across Illinois were required to adhere to an indoor-masking mandate issued via executive order by Gov. J.B. Pritzker. A lawsuit challenging the order drew a temporary restraining order on Feb. 4 from Sangamon County Judge Raylene Grischow. Over the past week, the state’s attempts to squash the order were turned back.
After the initial ruling on Feb. 4, Winnetka and Glencoe public schools — the only two districts in New Trier Township that were named in the subject lawsuit — immediately moved to mask-optional policies. Local schools governed by the Chicago Archdiocese, such as Sacred Heart in Winnetka and St. Joseph/St. Francis Xavier in Wilmette, went mask-optional shortly after the Feb. 4 ruling, while Loyola Academy made the move to mask-optional on Feb. 10.
In response to the restraining order, other local public districts — New Trier D203, Wilmette 39, Avoca D37, Kenilworth D38 and Sunset Ridge D29 — intensified discussions around an “off ramp” to certain COVID-19 mitigations, such as masking.
Then, on Thursday, Feb. 17, Avoca District 37’s School Board OK’d a reduction of COVID mitigations that includes a mask-optional policy starting Tuesday, Feb. 22.
The Illinois Department of Public Health and Illinois State Board of Education continue to recommend that students and staff members continue to wear a mask while inside school buildings — guidance that was echoed by the Cook County Department of Public Health in a statement on Feb. 18.
CCDPH “continues to strongly recommend universal masking in PreK-12 schools,” the statement reads. “Masking of all teachers, students and visitors reduces transmission of COVID-19, allowing districts to maintain in-person education in their schools.”
In a letter to district parents Friday, Feb. 18, New Trier Superintendent Dr. Paul Sally called a pivot to optional indoor masking “a safe choice for New Trier.” In support of the assertion, Sally pointed out the high school’s high vaccination rates (92% students, 96% staffers), falling local COVID-19 numbers, improved access to effective masks, other continued mitigation measures, and minimal current COVID cases within the district.
The plan in front of Wilmette Public Schools board would also make masking optional, and any future mitigation changes would be tied to a series of COVID metrics, such as local case rate, local positivity rate and cases within the district.
“It is important to note that the District developed this plan based on observed local trends, and may
make changes as conditions evolve,” D39 Superintendent Kari Cremascoli wrote in a memo to the School Board. “We remain hopeful that revised guidance on reducing mitigation layers will come from the state and/or public health agencies; however, as local control becomes available to school districts, we are confident that this proposed plan will allow us to move forward safely as a community.”
The Sunset Ridge D29 Board of Education approved on Tuesday, Feb. 15, an amended COVID mitigation plan that also connects safety measures to a series of COVID metrics.
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