‘The governor has just blatantly made it political’: Central School Board votes to highly recommend masks

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Nikki Buehler speaks during the Central School Board meeting Thursday night in the Central High School auditorium. On the stage are Board members Jason Ippensen, left, and Ben Hamilton. David Adam

CAMP POINT, Ill. — The Central School Board voted 3-2 Thursday night to highly recommend its students wear masks for the upcoming school year, but Nikki Buehler celebrated for only a moment.

“The work is not done,” she said after the meeting. “We have to get ready for the fight now.”

Buehler is a parent of two Central students and a member of We Stand for Students, a community group concerned about parent choice regarding mask options. She was one of five speakers during Thursday’s meeting. Four asked the School Board to defy 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.

Thursday’s vote now puts Community Unit School District No. 4 at risk.

‘We have to be prepared for a letter’

Timothy Christian Schools in Elmhurst, Ill., announced Wednesday masks would be optional for the upcoming school year. Carmen Ayala, state superintendent of education, quickly informed the school that its status as a recognized nonpublic school was removed “effective immediately.” Among the consequences for unrecognized schools are:

  • Seniors graduating from a non-recognized school will receive a diploma not recognized by ISBE.
  • The school, families and students can’t participate in the Invest in Kids Act tax scholarship program.
  • The school is ineligible to participate in Illinois High School Association and Illinois Elementary School Association sanctioned sports.

Timothy Christian reversed its stance later Wednesday, saying it will follow Pritzker’s order.

The Warsaw School District, which voted in June to make masks optional for its students, received a similar letter from Ayala on Thursday.

“We have to be (prepared for a letter),” Central School Board President Jason Ippensen said. “That’s kind of how we’ve approached it the whole way. If we vote this way, what do we have to do to be ready for the next step?”

About 50 people attended Thursday’s Central School Board meeting in the auditorium at Central High School. David Adam

Hamilton changes mind ‘about 30 seconds before’ vote

A document titled “Central CUSD No. 3 Back to School Plan” on the district’s website states the district will “follow the most up-to-date guidance and mandates.” It includes the sentence, “Masks are required for ALL individuals indoors at school.”

The document also details a “Test to Stay” protocol if a person at the school tests positive for COVID. If that person and all people within close contact were wearing masks, the people within close contact could stay in school if they agreed to being tested for COVID-19 four times during the next seven days. The plan also specified that if masks are universally worn in the school, close contacts are defined as individuals within three feet. If masks are not worn, six feet is used for close contact.

School Board member Devin Hildebrand made a motion to change the phrase, “Masks are required” to “Masks are highly recommended” while also deleting the “Test to Stay” protocol from the Back to School Plan. Ben Hamilton seconded the motion, sending it to the full board. 

Hildebrand, Hamilton and Jason Cooley voted in favor. Ippensen and Chris Marlow voted against. Curt Fessler and Kindel Kestner were absent.

When School Board members discussed the proposal before the vote, Hamilton said, “It’s my understanding that if … we decided to go masks highly recommended, you’re going to put a lot more kids at risk of quarantine. You essentially double the distance (for close contact) and eliminate the test out policy.”

Hamilton then turned to the crowd in the Central High School auditorium and said, “I don’t like that, guys. I have more complaints about the quarantine than the mask. By giving you what you want, I’m essentially throwing the quarantine under the bus.”

Asked when he made up his mind to vote in favor of the proposal, Hamilton said, “About 30 seconds before. I don’t think there’s a right answer. … The turning point for me was, well, I just think the governor has just blatantly made it political. I don’t like that, so that’s why I voted the way I did.”

‘I don’t want to hear no more. I’m just so tired of it’

Buehler said she was shocked when she heard the vote total.

“Ben Hamilton voted yes, but he also was one who said, ‘I’m worried about the quarantine. I’m worried that without the tighter restrictions, we’re going to have more quarantines here,’” she said. “But I think it’s a message that Central is ready to stand up for what’s right. I think we’re ready to make our own choices for our kids. We know our kids. We know what area we live in. That’s our message. We’re in charge.”

Before the vote, Marlow said the past few months have been the most difficult of his six-year tenure on the board.

“This is a very hard decision for all of us, no matter how you look at it,” he said. “… Everybody just gets tired of it. I mean, that’s what it boils down to. We feel like Mr. Pritzker is trying to control us and run us. It’s just … everybody’s tired of it, and it’s really putting us in a hard position. 

“I mean, we all see Facebook or we’re on Facebook. It’s your wife telling you, ‘Did you see this? Did you see what she put on there?’ I don’t want to hear no more. I’m just so tired of it. So that’s all I’ve got to say. I had no idea coming into this meeting how it was going to go, what I was gonna do. I’ll just tell you that, because I’m so back and forth all the time.”

Dr. Debra Phillips gestures to the crowd during Thursday’s Central School Board meeting. David Adam

Doctor tells Board, ‘I don’t want a dead child’

Dr. Debra Phillips was the only person to speak to the board in favor of the mask mandate. She was a member of the committee that developed a mask optional proposal last month before Pritzker’s announcement.

“Then the Delta variant (of COVID-19) came,” she said. “It’s a game changer. It’s frightening. This came from India. There were no vaccines over there. It’s mutating, and significantly, it’s even been found in deer. We’ve got to get a hold of it while you have a chance. You probably will be dealing with this for several years, and it will get worse. Guaranteed.

“I don’t want a dead child. I don’t know how much I can say this to you.”

The outcome of Thursday’s vote energized Buehler.

“I’ve already texted my kids, and they’re super excited now that they’ll have the option or the recommendation to wear a mask,” she said. “My family is just overjoyed right now. I’ll actually be able to sleep a little bit better at night, because every night I lay in bed, my mind just runs different things. I think of all the research that has to be done.

“This isn’t the only issue that we’re going to have to fight. There are curriculum mandates and vaccine mandates that might be coming in, so we have to get ready. We have to stay strong and maintain this relationship we have with our board and make sure they know that we’re here to support them.”

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