CUSD No. 4 School Board votes to make masks mandatory, but fight with state ‘has just begun’

Steve Arnsman

Steve Arnsman, a member of the CUSD No. 4 School Board, speaks to the people in attendance during Wednesday's meeting at Unity Elementary School in Mendon. In the background from left are School Board members Jessica Humke and Louis Janssen, attorney Jeff Terry and School Board member Danielle Fleer. David Adam

MENDON — Jessica Humke struggled to spit the word out of her mouth.

“Yes.”

Humke and six other members of the Community Unit School District No. 4 School Board voted Wednesday night at Unity Elementary School to follow Gov. JB Pritzker’s announcement this month that masks are required for students, teachers and staff at pre-K through 12th grade schools across Illinois, regardless of vaccination status.

The School Board voted Aug. 4 to defy Pritzker’s decree, then voted again Aug. 18 and ended in a 3-3 deadlock, with Humke being the lone absent member. The news that the Griggsville-Perry volleyball team would not travel to Mendon for a match on Tuesday was “the first real consequence” of the decision to remain mask optional, School Board member Ashley Shaffer said.

“I guess reality has to set in eventually,” said School Board president Jim Farmer, who attended the meeting by Zoom. “The board began to realize there really was not a clear path forward continuing to defy the governor’s mandate. (The volleyball cancellation) began to kind of turn the tide.”

School Board members Louis Janssen, Steve Arnsman and Shaffer changed their votes, joining Farmer, Danielle Fleer and Julie Duke.

Janssen: ‘We’re not flipping. We’re just adapting’

Humke said before voting she doesn’t like masks, but “sometimes we have to take the path that’s going to get us to the right destination with the least amount of damage.”

“The fight hasn’t changed,” she said after the meeting. “The state is putting our kids in the middle. They’re the ones suffering right now. I want to take the consequences of this fight, not my kids. If that means for right now they’ve got to wear masks so they can keep doing the things that they want to do and so their school can exist, that’s what we’ll do.

“We will fight even harder in other ways, because they crossed a line when they put the kids in the middle.”

Janssen doesn’t agree with people who believe the School Board “flipped” on the topic of allowing masks to remain optional in CUSD No. 4’s three buildings.

“We’re not flipping. We’re just adapting to the environment we’re forced to operate in,” he said. “The fight has just begun.”

Janseen said before voting a “team of lawyers” representing schools around the state is gathering to challenge the Illinois State Board of Education in court. He didn’t want to divulge who is putting the team together.

“I’m asking the question: Does the ISBE have the authority to change a school’s recognition status over a personal health issue?” Janssen said. “Does the superintendent of the state (Carmen Ayala) have the authority to put a school on probation, by herself, outside of a review period by the state board?”

ISBE to rule on status of Mendon schools Thursday morning

Several schools voting to make masks optional have received letters from the ISBE, informing them they are on probation. Each gets 60 days to change their mask policy to avoid placement on the non-recognized list. CUSD No. 4, however, has not received that letter.

Superintendent Scott Riddle told the approximately 15 people in attendance that he spoke Wednesday morning with ISBE representatives. He said the ISBE told him no ruling would be made on the Mendon schools’ status until Thursday morning.

Luke Maynard, a baseball coach at Unity Middle School, was concerned about masks being made mandatory, because the air conditioning system was on the fritz Wednesday at Unity High School and Unity Middle School. A home volleyball match Wednesday night between Unity and Quincy Notre Dame was moved to Quincy. 

“The temperature is supposed to be above 90 degrees on Thursday,” Maynard said. “Are we going to go to 2 o’clock every day? It’s not going to work. We have to figure that out before we put masks on kids for eight hours a day in that heat.”

Riddle said the part needed to repair the air conditioning unit arrived on Wednesday. He is confident the building will be cooled before classes begin Thursday.

Parent equates students wearing masks to ‘child abuse’

Eight people spoke to the School Board during the public comment portion of the meeting. Most spoke in favor of keeping masks optional.

“I don’t think we should give up the fight, but I do think we need to find a different way to fight it,” said Brian Muegge, the father of two high school students. “It’s not right. The governor, the IDPH (Illlinois Department of Public Health), the IHSA (Illinois High School Association), it’s  not right. But it doesn’t make it right for us to use our kids for leverage as well.”

Chad Bruening, the father of two high school students, referred to “some recent studies at Brown University” reporting a 20-point reduction of IQ in kids “in the last couple of years.”

“I would have to think social distancing and masks have a lot to do with that,” he said.

He also referred to studies “done recently, prior to last few years,” showing kids being put in masks would have been “viewed as child abuse.”

Bruening also said he believes the people who send their children to CUSD No. 4 schools already have made a decision about masks, regardless of the School Board vote. 

“The community decided masks are optional,” he said. “Go to any store, any social event, stuff like that. Masks are optional. … When you go to work, when you go places, unless somebody’s watching, most people don’t wear masks.

“I really believe we need to stand our ground and show kids what needs to be done. Lead by example. Why would we put the kids through that child abuse when we’re unwilling to do it ourselves?”

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