CUSD No. 4 School Board’s mask-optional vote goes against Pritzker’s edict

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MENDON, Ill. — The Community Unit School District No. 4 School Board voted 5-2 during a special meeting Wednesday night to make masks optional for students during the 2021-22 school year.

The board’s vote defies Gov. JB Pritzker’s Tuesday announcement that masks are required for students, teachers and staff at pre-K through 12th grade schools across Illinois, regardless of vaccination status. The new requirement formalized the CDC guidance released in July on universal masking for unvaccinated and vaccinated people in schools.

Many school boards in West-Central Illinois voted in July to make masks optional for the school year that begins in August. Those boards now must decide to continue that practice or follow the governor’s edict.

Jim Farmer, president of the School Board, said he and vice president Danielle Fleer were the two dissenting votes on Thursday. Voting in favor of the proposal were Steve Arnsman, Louis Janssen, Julie Duke, Jessica Humke and Ashley Shaffer. A vote on the district’s COVID policy was not taken during the July 19 School Board meeting, forcing Thursday’s special meeting to be called.

“We could not come to an agreement (at the July meeting) on what the language should be,” Farmer said. “We had to tell the superintendent (Scott Riddle) what we wanted him to do when when school starts.”

The number of people at CUSD No. 4 School Board meetings typically can be counted on one hand. Farmer said the crowd in the gymnasium at Unity Middle School was the largest he’s seen in his 10 years on the School Board, with easily more than 100 people in attendance.

“It was a little bit contentious but also just a lot of passion and emotion,” Farmer said. “It’s a very important subject to everyone, because it involves our kids. I certainly appreciate that the people felt strongly, and the board took action.”

Farmer said until Tuesday the issue of masks in school was a “matter of semantics.”

“What’s the difference between mask optional and masks are highly recommended but not required?” he said. “But then the governor issued the executive order, and that kind of changed it. Now it’s not a matter of semantics. It’s a matter of, ‘Are you going to go against the governor’s executive order?’”

Asked to explain his vote, Farmer said, “I will be the first to say I don’t think anyone on the board agrees with the governor’s recommendation. A small school district in West Central Illinois probably doesn’t have a lot of power to defy the governor of the state of Illinois.”

Wednesday’s vote puts the school district in “unchartered territory,” Farmer said.

He noted Pritzker filed a lawsuit after all three school entities in the Hutsonville CUSD No. 1 sent the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Illinois School Board of Education a letter noting their refusal to follow school-reopening guidelines. The Hutsonville Board of Education later reversed course and voted 4-3 to follow IDPH guidelines.

The Red Hill School District also was put on probation for relaxing its mask guidance. The ISBE sent a letter threatening that the state could close the school.

“The Illinois State Board of Education has the authority to do that. Whether they actually would or not, I don’t know,” Farmer said. “I got word (Thursday) we are potentially in danger of losing some COVID relief grants that we had applied for. If we’re defying this executive order, we probably will not be in compliance with a safe school return policy. Therefore, we may be ineligible for the grants which are substantial, hundreds of thousands of dollars, for a small district.

“We’re going to have to find out what the consequences are. If it actually did come down to a serious threat of closing the school district, I’m sure no one wants that.”

Despite his vote, Farmer says he supports the wishes of the School Board.

“I disagree with what they did, but I do respect the five members who thought this was the best path forward,” he said. “I hope it works out. It doesn’t do any good to be the lone wolf. What’s the point? The board made a decision. I disagree with it, but that’s the decision that we’ve made.”

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