D181 goes mask-optional after Friday's court ruling

Community Consolidated District 181 students returned to in-person learning on Tuesday without a mask requirement following an emergency virtual closed session of the school board Monday night.

The meeting was held to determine the district’s response to a judge’s Feb. 4 temporary restraining order halting Gov. JB Pritzker’s mask mandate in the roughly 170 schools named in the suit, including District 181, as well as the quarantining of asymptomatic close contacts. Monday was declared an emergency remote instruction day to give officials time to review the case.

“Based on the court’s TRO decision, and on legal recommendation, we have determined to temporarily suspend enforcement of the mask mandate and exclusion for asymptomatic close contacts for all district students,” Superintendent Hector Garcia said in a letter posted on the district’s website following the meeting.

In response to inquiry from The Hinsdalean, the district issued a statement that board members did not vote on the change.

“The purpose of the closed session meeting was for the board to receive (under Section 2(c)(11) of the OMA) a legal update and opinion from our attorneys on the pending litigation and the TRO ruling,” it read.

Some residents were angered by the district’s late notice Sunday night of Monday’s switch to remote learning and gathered outside the district’s Clarendon Hills headquarters midday on Monday to demand the district resume in-person learning with masks optional.

District parent and Illinois Senate candidate Ryan Steele spoke at the rally, which drew 150 to 200 protesters. He criticized the district for seemingly being caught off guard by a ruling that was expected weeks earlier.

“How could our school board and administration not have been prepared for this?” Steele posed. “They didn’t have a contingency in place that wouldn’t force these kids back into remote learning for a day?”

Steele said he was pleased with the decision Monday night.

“I’m happy that masks are optional because it gives everyone a choice,” he said. “It should be the parents making the choice.”

He was not pleased, however, to learn from Tom DeVore, the attorney leading the lawsuit against Pritzker’s mask mandate, that the district filed its own appeal to the temporary restraining order.

Steele characterized such legal action as wasteful and divisive.

“You’re fighting half of the school district (that wants mask optional)” he said.

Jamie Lavigueur, the district’s director of communication, confirmed the filing.

“Yes, this is part of a coordinated joint defense effort through our insurance company,” she told The Hinsdalean.

Masking is still required on district school buses under a Centers for Disease Control order. And district staff must continue to wear masks.

Before adjourning to closed session Monday, board President Margie Kleber reported that the district had received 171 written comments. Posted on the district’s BoardDocs, the comments represent opposing views on the mask issue, underscoring its polarizing nature.

“I urge the board to maintain the current masking and protocols developed prior to the result of the lawsuit and which we’ve followed all through this year. Masking and distancing keeps community spread down, our schools safe and open,” wrote Ann Chai of The Lane School area.

But Oak School parent Brian McGrath had a starkly different take.

“Make the mask optional, both parents and children are paying the price for remote learning,” he wrote. “Giving children the option, like many districts have, keeps the schools open for live learning which is the most beneficial for the kids, while those who want wear a mask can.”

Before entering closed session on Monday, board member Michael Martin registered his objection to the virtual meeting and to district’s seemingly ill-preparedness that precipitated the remote learning day.

“I believe all meetings should be held in person,” he said. “We need to do better than sending this to parents at 6:30 the night before indicating it’s going to be remote.”

In his letter, Garcia strongly recommended the continued use of masks and said the situation remains fluid.

“Importantly, this decision is temporary and subject to change. If a stay of the TRO is granted or the ruling is reversed on appeal, we will immediately resume enforcement of the COVID-19 requirements for all students,” he stated.

Author Bio

Ken Knutson is associate editor of The Hinsdalean