ISBE’s quick decision forces private school to change its mind over masks in one day

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Local school boards might want to pay attention. The Illinois State Board of Education isn’t messing around.

A letter signed by Carmen Ayala, state superintendent of education, was emailed Wednesday to Timothy Christian Schools in Elmhurst, Ill., informing Superintendent Matt Davidson the school’s status as a recognized nonpublic school was removed “effective immediately.”

Davidson announced earlier Wednesday in a video (see below) that it was going to make masks optional for the upcoming school year, defying Gov. JB Pritzker’s announcement last week that masks are required for students, teachers and staff at pre-K through 12th grade schools across Illinois, regardless of vaccination status. 

Ayala’s letter noted the following consequences for schools no longer recognized:

  • Seniors graduating from a non-recognized school will receive a diploma not recognized by ISBE. This action is irreversible should the school later regain its recognition status. Those students will forever have a degree from a non-recognized school.
  • The school, families and students can’t participate in the Invest in Kids Act tax scholarship program, subject to the regulations set by the Illinois Department of Revenue.
  • The school is ineligible to participate in Illinois High School Association and Illinois Elementary School Association sanctioned sports. IHSA by-law 1.210 (b) states “any public high school in Illinois may become a member of this association provided the school is recognized by the Illinois State Board of Education.”

‘Noncompliance is not an option’: Ayala

Ayala also sent a letter to all superintendents around the state, offering her support.

“We don’t throw our umbrella away in a rainstorm because we’re not getting wet,” she wrote. “We have to keep our umbrella up until the storm passes.

“Noncompliance is not an option. I will not compromise the health and safety of students or staff, nor will I risk even one child’s life. Local boards of education, schools and school districts do not have the authority to deny the governor’s executive order requiring universal indoor masking in schools.”

Ayala explained in the letter to superintendents that school districts have opportunities to “remedy the deficiencies that present a health hazard” before becoming unrecognized.

Illinois Administrative Code 1.20 says a school or district shall be placed on probation if it exhibits deficiencies that present a health hazard or a danger to students or staff. 

“The state superintendent shall schedule a conference with the superintendent of a district that is placed on probation … at which representatives of the district will discuss compliance issues with representatives of the State Board,” the code reads. “Within 60 days following this conference, the school district shall submit to the regional superintendent of schools and the state superintendent a corrective plan.”

The ISBE has 15 days to consult and review the corrective plan once it is received.

“If no plan is submitted, or if no approvable plan is received within 60 days after the district’s conference with the state board, the status of the district … shall be changed to ‘nonrecognized,’ the code reads.

Penn says ISBE using a ‘more aggressive tact’ with Timothy Christian

The ISBE skipped probationary status and went directly to nonrecognized in the case of Timothy Christian, a nonpublic school. 

Illinois Administrative Code 425.60 says, “A nonpublic school’s recognition status may be changed by the state superintendent at any time to reflect information confirmed during compliance monitoring or by any other means. Except in instances in which the State Superintendent determines there is an emergency situation present at a school, no school may have its recognition removed by administrative action without first having been placed on probation.”

“That signals a more aggressive tact (by the ISBE),” said attorney David Penn, legal counsel for all five public school districts in Adams County.

“We do not take this action lightly,” Ayala’s letter read. “The purpose of the universal indoor masking requirement is to ensure that all students can safely attend school in-person this fall. We know that consistent and correct mask use is the simplest, most effective way to keep students safely in school, where they can learn and grow to their fullest potential. And masks work best when everyone wears one. Therefore, ISBE must take every action possible under its authority to ensure compliance in all schools with the Executive Order.”

Matt Davidson, superintendent at Timothy Christian

After word of Ayala’s response was made public, attorney Vanessa Clohessy replied with another email that was posted on the Timothy Christian website. “To be crystal clear,” she wrote, “Timothy Christian has no intention of defying the executive order.” She added she wants to have a conversation about the rules under which the school’s recognition was “immediately” revoked.

Davidson sent to Timothy Christian parents a letter, also posted on the school website, explaining the school will follow Pritzker’s order. 

“Our professional conviction is that we cannot allow such significant consequences as outlined by ISBE to adversely impact our children,” he wrote. “Many of our high school students are looking forward to IHSA athletics and other activities. Many are counting on college scholarships and opportunities. Many of our families are receiving much-needed scholarship money from the Invest in Kids Act. As a preK-12 school, it particularly doesn’t feel right to have our children used as leverage.”

Status of mask policies in Adams County schools

Jim Farmer is president of the CUSD No. 4 School Board, which voted last week to make masks optional in the three schools it governs in Mendon. He says the district has not received as of Thursday afternoon any information from the ISBE regarding its status as a recognized school. The next School Board meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, August 18.

The CUSD No. 3 School Board is scheduled to meet at 6:30 tonight in the auditorium at Central High School. 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. Currently, Governor Pritzker has mandated all students, staff and visitors to be masked indoors in schools.”

However, We Stand for Our Students member Nikki Buehler said the Board plans to vote tonight on its mask policy. A committee created at the Board’s July 16 meeting was to address its COVID policy for the upcoming school year.

The CUSD No. 1 School Board voted last month to “highly recommend” masks in the two schools it governs in Payson. The next School Board meeting is scheduled for Monday, August 16.

This week, the CUSD No. 2 School Board in Liberty voted on Monday follow the mandate from Pritzker and the Quincy School Board followed suit on Wednesday.

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