ROCHELLE — The Rochelle Township High School Hub Gallery room was full Monday with parents and community members that pleaded with District 212 board during its monthly meeting to make masks optional for the upcoming school year.
The board heard numerous public comments as the Illinois Department of Public Health recently adopted guidance from the CDC that states masks should be worn by all individuals ages 2 and older who are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
The CDC also recommends maintaining at least 3 feet of physical distance between students in classrooms.
Colleen Esterday, a parent of an incoming freshman, asked the board to adopt an optional mask policy for this fall.
“As parents, we have the responsibility to make the best choice we feel is right for our children's physical, mental and emotional health,” Esterday said. “Our teachers need to get back to teaching and not have to spend unnecessary time playing mask police. Our students need to get back to normalcy, learning and socializing. A mask optional choice for students left up to parents is the way to make this happen.”
Angie McGough has four children in Rochelle schools including two in high school.
“For kids in high school who are learning to go out on their own, they have to be able to read emotions and react appropriately,” McGough said. “I feel we should all be informed about what is right for ourselves and our children and we should have the ability to make that decision for ourselves."
Board President Tom Huddleston said the board is “getting real close” to making a decision and is waiting for additional guidance to come from the state. He said Superintendent Jason Harper told him his goal is to have “some sort” of definitive policy statement out by Friday.
"We probably share a lot of the same opinions you all do,” Huddleston said. “Although we're being very cautious in putting together the right policies. We don't start school for several weeks so we have a bit of time to make sure we get this exactly right. But I think that everybody will be happy that we're doing things in everybody's best interest."
Harper told the board in his monthly report that he’d hoped to have more information and guidance to share by the meeting. He said guidance hasn’t been updated since July 9.
Harper said he’d continue to update the board on changes and associate with the RTHS teacher's association, the school’s nurse, the Ogle County Health Department, the Illinois State Board of Education, IDPH, legal counsel and the legal counsel that represents the school via insurance in regards to liability.
Jackie Ramsey, an instructional support teacher at Rochelle Middle School, said at the meeting during public comment that she represents a local group against masks being mandatory.
"I'm watching all of these kids all over the city travel to different states and everywhere without masks,” Ramsey said. “They've been together all year. They've been close together. I know there's no social distancing going on. I realize the school has to protect everybody. But we're a year-and-a-half into this and that's why we're asking for optional masking now.”
Trevor Goodwin, a graduate of the RTHS class of 2021, spoke at the meeting from a student’s perspective.
“Having a mask last year really made learning uncomfortable and more difficult,” Goodwin said. “You couldn't really hang out with friends anymore. I don't think it's safe, especially for classes like PE. Why are we talking about masks being optional when nobody in this room is wearing a mask?”
Huddleston closed the public comment portion by thanking the audience for its input and said the plan all summer long was to watch what other districts do, see what models are available and to listen to constituents.
He said it’s “very important” to the board to have its consensus be based on what local residents believe needs to be done.
“A lot of your opinions coincide with my opinion,” Huddleston said. “But to make the right decision takes a little bit of thought. I can make a decision at home very easily. Making a decision on a board is for everybody. We've got to get it right and make sure everybody is in line with that decision.
“I think everybody here will be very happy and proud with the way we move into next year.”