High School Board: Reopening plan with mask mandate approved

Board president: ‘The risks are too great’

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ROCHELLE — The Rochelle Township High School Board of Education approved a school reopening plan that adheres to the Gov. JB Pritzker’s mask mandate by a vote of 6-0 at its Monday meeting. 

Similar to the past few high school and elementary district board meetings, members of the community voiced their thoughts against masks in school and urged board members to go against the state mandate and make masks optional in schools. The board previously opted for a mask optional approach before the governor’s mandate. 

High School Board President Tom Huddleston spoke to those in attendance at Monday’s meeting and said the governor’s executive order is a law in the board’s eyes that it has to abide by. 

If the board did not abide by the mask mandate, Huddleston said the board could be sued by the state or governor and would have “greatly compromised” tort immunity. Individuals on the board or administrators could be sued for punitive damages and the district would not be able to cover those charges. 

“At the last meeting we completely agreed with you that masks should be optional,” Huddleston said. “At that time it was a recommendation from the governor. The executive order took away our discretion. It requires us to abide by it with very many significant risks if we don't.”

The risks include finances, liability, punitive damages/lawsuits, state programming like the school’s athletic system could be completely shut down along with things like the free and reduced lunch program. Diplomas could potentially not be certified. 

“This could all happen in a matter of weeks,” Huddleston said. “We're fighting like heck right now and working very hard to try to give these students the kind of year they need. We don't like the mask mandate, I don't personally like it. I think it should be a parent's right, but it's not. The risks are too great for us to flatly not be in accordance with the law.”

Huddleston said the board will give Superintendent Jason Harper the ability to make changes if the laws change or soften. The elementary school board approved the same reopening plan with masks required at a meeting last week and began school Tuesday. 

“I personally believe it's best to abide by the mandate and see what happens,” Huddleston said. “We meet all the time. We don't have to wait for a meeting to make a change.”

Rochelle resident Cole Thomas has voiced his thoughts against the mask mandate at a few recent meetings and attended Monday’s. 

“I ask that you hold true to your original decision of the mask optional rule,” Thomas said. “I ask that you do everything in your power to save our kids from this. Show the state you still retain local control and authority. Please, you are our last hope. Vote no tonight on the mask mandate."

Scott Swartz, a teacher at RTHS, spoke at the meeting about why he supports the board’s decision to enforce the mask mandate. 

“Right now, our students face a threat of the Delta variant of COVID-19,” Swartz said. “One of the ways we can protect them is to wear a mask. I hate wearing a mask. But the data and science are clear that it helps. It will protect them. And that's why it's important.”

RTHS has been operating with masks required since its first day of school on Friday. Principal Chris Lewis said Friday was the first time every single student has been in the building since the pandemic began in March 2020. 

“It was a great moment for the school to get everyone back and we're excited for the teachers and our kids to be back in the building whether we have masks or not was really exciting for our kids,” Lewis said. “It was nice to see 800-900 kids at one time instead of a couple hundred.”

Other action

The board unanimously approved the hiring of Leticia Aby Guerrero as a Spanish teacher, Tom O’Neill as a part-time behind-the-wheel instructor and Kelly Rodriguez as a bilingual paraprofessional. 

The board unanimously approved the expenditure of $48,406 total for two 2022 Chrysler Voyager L minivans from Prescott Brothers Inc. to replace two minivans with over 130,000 miles each that were starting to show signs of wear and tear. 

After executive session, the board voted unanimously to expel a student for two years with recommendation for alternative education.