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Illinois school district superintendents demand local control in COVID-19 policies
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Illinois school district superintendents demand local control in COVID-19 policies

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Determined to loosen stringent COVID-19 mandates at Illinois schools, a contingent of school district superintendents on Thursday called on the State Board of Education to return local control to communities, and to take steps toward a less restrictive “post-pandemic” reality.

The public educators — many of whom represent public school districts in central and southern Illinois — joined forces at Thursday’s state board meeting to express frustrations with Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s school mask mandate, and urged the board to allow schools to rely on local metrics to decide what is best for their communities.

Since schools fully reopened at the start of the new school year, the state’s mask mandate has been the target of volatile parent protests at school board meetings, with critics saying the COVID-19 mitigation strategy recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is harmful to students’ mental and physical health, and violates parental rights.

“The tensions in our community still exist, and are starting to rise again,” said Curt Nettles, superintendent of Clinton Community Unit School District 15.

“We want to move forward and not feel helpless and hopeless … We need local control on more issues in the future, Nettles said.

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Tim Arnold, superintendent of Will County School District 92 in Lockport, said with children ages 5 to 11 now eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, the Illinois Department of Public Health’s pandemic metrics should include “a clear finish line” for Illinois schools.

“We take COVID mitigations seriously,” Arnold said. When Pritzker issued the mask mandate in August, “it made sense,” he said.

“But the difference is now, we have the vaccine,” Arnold said.

As the superintendent of Regional Office of Education 11 in east central Illinois, Kyle Thompson said the state board should hand over control to local communities through the “removal of mandates in all forms, not just COVID-related.”

The district oversees Arcola, Arthur, Charleston, Central A&M, Sullivan, Shelbyville and Mattoon school districts. 

Thompson — who worried the impact of contact tracing and quarantines at Illinois schools has led to “more mental health hospitalizations” than children hospitalized from the virus — said the state should move away from “a one-size-fits-all approach.”

Pointing out that many neighboring states in the Midwest, including Kentucky and Indiana, have far less restrictive COVID-19 policies at schools, Bluffs and Winchester Schools Superintendent Kevin Blankenship said “kids in Illinois feel like they’re being singled out.”

“The kids are telling us, ‘go and fight for us,’” said Blankenship, the leader of two school districts which are located in southern Illinois.

As the leader of El Paso Gridley Unit District 11, Superintendent Brian Kurz said local school boards and administrators should make decisions affecting students, not the state.

“The frustration is real and it’s growing. ... Where is the light at the end of the tunnel?” Kurz said.

Illinois State Board of Education Superintendent Carmen Ayala said she plans to meet soon with Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the state’s health department, to discuss COVID-19’s lingering impact on Illinois schools. She told the superintendents: “I’m a colleague who has walked in your shoes, and I’m walking with you during the pandemic.”

“We all continue to fight this pandemic at every level,” Ayala said. “We will get out of the pandemic, and move forward.”

With dozens of public and private schools in Illinois on probation for refusing to comply with the governor’s mask mandate, the state board on Thursday approved a plan to hold public discussions in the coming weeks on changes to the due process for schools flouting the rule.

The state board changed course last month on a policy that had instantly labeled noncompliant private schools “nonrecognized,” while granting public schools defying the order a 60-day probation period.

ISBE officials said the proposed amendments “will provide necessary support for schools, school districts, and nonpublic schools to ensure the health and safety of students, school personnel, and their broader communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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