Masks now mandatory in Payson, but School Board vows to join other districts in fight to regain local control

Payson 5

Gloria Kirby speaks to the Payson School Board during Monday's meeting in the old elementary school gymnasium before a crowd of about 75 people. David Adam

PAYSON, Ill. — Chanse Barker grew tired of the fight.

His “yes” vote was part of the 5-1 vote by the Payson School Board on Monday night to amend the Return to School plan for Community Unit School District No. 1 to make masks mandatory for all students, teachers and staff — regardless of vaccination status — when classes begin Wednesday.

Barker has been vocal in previous months about his disdain for any legislation taking the decision on students and masks out of the hands of local school districts. He also has read about the letters recently sent by the Illinois State Board of Education to schools opposing the mask mandate, threatening them with non-recognition status and not allowing their athletic teams to participate in Illinois High School Association competition.

When he addressed the approximately 75 people gathered in the old elementary school gymnasium, Barker changed his tune.

“The vote that I want to do has been taken away from me,” he told the crowd. “I don’t want you to think we’ve rolled over and given up, but we just have to go another way.”

‘When I’m in a fight, they’re gonna take stuff’

The Payson School Board voted July 15 to highly recommend masks in most settings for unvaccinated individuals. Pritzker issued the mask mandate Aug. 3. 

Barker, Denise Albsmeyer, Lisa Schwartz, Danelle Donley and Vinson Sill voted in favor of amending the plan. Clint Twaddle voted not to change the plan. One position on the School Board is vacant after Jeff Hull recently resigned.

Barker said he was at home “sitting around and thinking” Sunday when he made the decision to vote in favor of the mask mandate.

“Everybody can tell you that they’re not going to take things away from you,” he said. “I don’t know how you are with your significant other, but when I’m in a fight, they’re gonna take stuff. 

“The seniors, they put 12 years into this school. They spent last year in masks. If (the ISBE takes) away our recognition, their diplomas are worthless. They put in 12 years in a school that they loved. They came every day. They did their time. Then you think about the teachers. We’re asking 40 people to go against the state mandate to put their livelihoods at risk.” 

Schwartz, the School Board president, told the crowd she hopes many school districts in the state will come together to fight the governor’s mandate in court. Attorney David Penn, legal counsel for the School Board, said approximately 35 school districts have voted to make masks optional.

“We’re not done with this,” Schwartz said after the meeting. “We’re talking with other school districts, not just here in West-Central Illinois but throughout the state, to get a combined effort. … We’re in compliance now. I feel like we have a chance to fight this in court if we want to try to gain local control back.”

Wilson, Penn debate importance of House Bill 2789

Sixteen people spoke during the public participation portion of Monday’s meeting. Twelve of them were against the mask mandate. Schwartz also read a letter from a community member in support of the mask mandate.

Danielle Wilson, a parent of two boys, spoke about House Bill 2789, introduced in the Illinois House in February 2021. It calls to allow ISBE to revoke recognition for schools failing to comply with public health requirements issued by IDPH when a public health emergency is declared by the governor. It also would prohibit a school board from passing any resolution that goes against any requirement established by the IDPH during a public health emergency. 

HB2789 passed the House on April 22, but it remains stalled in the Senate.

“Why (is ISBE) sending out letters threatening a school’s recognition status when they don’t currently possess the authority? They are acting as if House Bill 2789 is law. It is not,” Wilson said. “The day that law is passed, I will stop fighting this on a local level and become a state advocate. Until then, we are still in control.”

Penn explained various courts in Illinois already have ruled the governor had the authority to issue a disaster and a state of emergency under of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency Act, giving ISBE and the IDPH authority to issue and enforce guidelines and mandates.

“This was done before House Bill 2789 ever was introduced,” Penn told the crowd. “Our (interpretation) of 2789 (is that it) attempts to put some guardrails in to emergency management. It has bothered people that the governor seemingly can just put these executive orders, these disaster proclamations, out forever. When’s it gonna stop? That bill is, if you will, trying to rein it in a little bit. But that does not mean (ISBE’s and IDPH’s power) didn’t already exist.

“The fact that because 2789 was introduced some time later and didn’t pass means (ISBE and IDPH) don’t have the authority, in our opinion, does not make sense. It does not follow what the courts have held to date.”

Several families talking about homeschooling children

Brad Baze, a local firefighter, told the School Board that 30 families met in a local park on Sunday to talk about organizing home schooling for parents who don’t send their children to Payson schools. He said 12 parents who could not attend Sunday’s gathering wanted more information. Kyle Beckman said he won’t send his children to Payson schools if masks were mandated.

After the vote, several disgruntled parents met outside the gymnasium to talk about home schooling.

Visibly frustrated afterward, Wilson was dissatisfied with Penn’s interpretation of HB 2789.

“(The School Board is) saying they want to band together with all these other school boards and all this other stuff, but they’re not the ones taking a stand,” she said. “Somebody has to stand, and they are refusing to do it. 

“They say they’re seeking alternative legal counsel and stuff like that. I’m just saying that the lawyer they go through is saying things and then not being held accountable for what he’s saying. It’s incredibly frustrating, because I know for a fact that what he’s saying in terms of cases, setting the precedent and stuff like that, is absolutely untrue. The amount of research I’ve done on this is absolutely obscene.”

Wilson says she will send her children to school on Wednesday without masks.

“There’s no legal repercussion that you can take against my perfectly healthy child,” she said. “There is no law being broken, so there is no reason why they can legally deny my child an education. We’ll see what (school administrators) will do, because I would move forward with a lawsuit if that’s the way that it’s going to go. … I can guarantee you there will be more unmasked children than there will be masked. You can take that to the bank.”

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