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As COVID-19 rates dip, parents demand that masks be optional for students next fall
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As COVID-19 rates dip, parents demand that masks be optional for students next fall

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Fourth and fifth grade students make nameplates during their keyboarding and basic tech class at Thomas Middle School on June 16, 2021. Arlington Heights School District 25's Summer U summer school program kicked-off at Thomas Middle School, and all students are required under IDPH guidelines to wear masks indoors.

After Illinois launched phase five of its COVID-19 reopening plan earlier this month, Wilmette resident Ted Dabrowski enjoyed a jubilant dinner with family and friends at a North Shore restaurant — a celebration that epitomized his long-awaited return to normalcy.

But Dabrowski’s joy was short-lived when he remembered that for Illinois students like his son, a rising sophomore at New Trier High School, many of the restrictions wrought by the pandemic — including mandatory mask-wearing — are likely to linger into the start of the new school year next fall.

“Here I am, out with a group of adults, and we’re all having a good time, and then I go to watch my son play basketball, and all of the kids have to be masked up,” said Dabrowski, a father of four and the president of Wirepoints, a nonprofit research firm.

“It makes no sense, allowing adults, at higher risk of getting sick from the virus, to congregate unmasked as much as they want and not allowing the kids to take off their masks. ... It’s upside down,” Dabrowski added.

With legions of fans packing Wrigley Field, music lovers gearing up for the return of Lollapalooza, and the COVID-19 positivity rate dipping below 1%, some suburban Chicago parents like Dabrowski are troubled that much of the freedom arriving with the state’s reopening is not lifting what many view as burdensome and unnecessary restrictions on Illinois students.

While the start of the 2021-22 school year is still three months away, many parents are wasting no time this summer in sharing their frustrations with local and state boards of education, questioning why Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the state’s health department have not budged from their tough stance on mandatory mask-wearing in schools.

Indeed, some parents say Illinois’ mandatory mask rule for students is punitive and hypocritical, especially as health department officials have greenlighted a return to full capacity at Illinois bars, restaurants and retailers.

“Are these decisions based on what is best for students ... young faces covered by masks, straining to talk and breathe freely, even when outdoors?” said Elmhurst resident Christopher Lameka, a father of two, and one of several parents who last month urged the Elmhurst School District 205 Board of Education to remove the mask mandate for students in the fall.

“When the school board mandates masks be worn for protection, we are inhibiting our students’ ability to learn and grow,” Lameka added.

On Wednesday, a contingent of Illinois school district superintendents urged officials at the state board of education to deliver a detailed plan by early summer of what COVID-19 guidelines will look like at schools next fall, while several parents shared concerns about some officials promoting vaccines for students, calling the advocacy disrespectful to “parental rights.”

As educators and parents anxiously await word of what guidelines will still be in place at schools this fall, Illinois Department of Public Health spokeswoman Melaney Arnold said officials will “continue to monitor the virus and the amount of COVID-19 and variants circulating in Illinois and assess the guidance for schools.”

“At this time, masks are required indoors at schools along with social distance and other mitigations,” Arnold said, adding that, “Appropriate social distancing, face masks, enhanced sanitation measures and other mitigations will be necessary to ensure the safety of students, staff and their families.”

With the recent expansion of vaccine eligibility to include kids ages 12 to 15, many parents across Chicago and the suburbs were eager to get COVID-19 vaccine shots in their kids’ arms before the start of summer.

While the state will not mandate that students receive the vaccine in order to attend classes in the fall, public health officials have urged parents to have their kids vaccinated, as some experts say younger children represent a key demographic for achieving herd immunity.

Still, the potential of a sector of students ages 12 to 18 being vaccinated has not yet altered mask guidelines, including at Chicago Public Schools, where officials said, “In alignment with state and city guidelines, masks in schools are still required.”

Wearing masks while indoors is also still mandatory at the Archdiocese of Chicago’s schools, spokeswoman Susan Thomas said.

“The archdiocesan COVID-19 task force will continue to monitor local and state public health guidance and provide updates to current protocols as needed,” Thomas said.

Nevertheless, for parents like Judy Benson, a mother of two from Deerfield, the state board’s recent announcement that Illinois schools will be required to fully reopen for in-person student learning in the fall is a step in the right direction but does not go far enough.

Benson — who was among a group of parents who demanded that Districts 109 and 113 reopen for in-person student learning earlier this year — said she is now focused on convincing officials that masks should be optional for students when the new school year starts.

“Transmission rates are so low right now. ... There were 40,000 fans at Wrigley Field the other night,” said Benson, adding that parents should be able to decide whether their children wear masks at school.

“If the goal is zero risk, that’s not realistic,” Benson said.

District 109 Superintendent Michael V. Simeck said in a letter to parents last month that he hoped to provide a “snapshot of what the fall is likely to look like,” adding that ISBE “clarified this week that masks will be required in schools next year.”

“We will be following all health and safety protocols laid out by federal, state and county health agencies, and will communicate any requirements that deviate from our current practices,” Simeck said, adding: “We will pay close attention to any vaccine developments and advocate for our students to have opportunities to be vaccinated when they are eligible.”

At Arlington Heights School District 25, Superintendent Lori Bein said the 700 students enrolled in the district’s Summer U program this week — up from 500 students in 2020 — will be required to wear masks indoors.

“At this point, we’ll all still be masked in the fall, and we need to continue to be flexible, as the situation continues to be fluid, but we are getting back to being much closer to normal. That’s for sure,” Bein said.

Back on the North Shore, New Trier parent Dabrowski said he remains hopeful that Illinois families will have the right to decide whether their children are masked in the classroom in the fall.

“We all know kids are safe, and most of the teachers are vaccinated,” Dabrowski said. “It’s time to let the kids go unmasked, and time for people to have a choice. Kids aren’t at risk, and they’re not superspreaders, so let them be kids, and let them start to live life again.”

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