By ARIANA R. CHERRY
This past Thursday evening on August 11, concerned parents, guardians and members of the Arthur District community filed into the high school gym to voice their concerns about the recent mask mandate that Governor Pritzker put in place. At the time of the public meeting, the school had voted on a Safe Return to School Plan, citing that “masks were recommended for those who were not vaccinated,” but they wouldn’t be checking vaccination statuses, etc… The district wanted to focus more on being educators and not allowing the pandemic to get in the way. Although with the rising cases of the new Delta variant, many are feeling “deja-vu” and it seems as if we are on replay from last year as mandates and mitigations come back into our lives once again.
An estimate of 70 people attended the informational meeting. Those who spoke included Illinois State Representative, Brad Halbrook and Brian Braun – the school district’s attorney. Community members that spoke included Tosha Donnals, Stephanie Maddox, Kylee Hershberger, Mary Rosas, Darrel Gingrich, Lindsey Sallie and Kristin Morfey. Two emails sent from Lindsey Sallie and Brandy Smith were also read aloud by superintendent Cheek. The majority of those who spoke and attended were against Governor Pritzker’s latest mask mandate for Illinois schools.
In an email from Lindsey Sallie, she stated that “she would like to see the decision making stay local. The governor lacks authority because there is no law, bill or case bill that gives him power. The governor is trying to force and scare school board members with his clauses and scare you into compliance.”
“My children suffered greatly last year with a mask and during sports when they had to wear a mask. Our children are not their property. The government should not be able to dictate when and where our kids should wear a mask. He is not God, not the president of the United States or the parent of my child or any other child who goes to school,” stated some of the words that were in Brandy Smith’s email.
After those first two emails were read aloud, it was already clear that tensions were high. Few were wearing masks in attendance and some members of the audience pressured the speakers who wore one, to remove them when they were at the microphone. Eventually because of not being able to understand their words clearly, speakers removed their masks so that their voices could be heard.
Vice President of the ALAH School Board, Monica Green read the rules for those giving public comments before the initial process began. This was to keep the meeting formal and under control, as most knew, this was already a touchy topic for many. Speakers were allowed five minutes each unless they requested a longer amount of time.
Tosha was the first parent to approach the microphone. She stated that her son had a medical condition which would not allow him to wear a mask. Because of this, she said she was never able to get her son in school last year. “The Illinois State Board of Education never investigated this. The district chose to follow some of the CDC guidelines and some of the health department guidelines. My son had medical documentation to show he had medical issues. The district did not follow the guidelines to a “T,” Tosha spoke. Tosha had also brought several pages of documentation stating how the district could handle such a situation. “The district does not have the responsibility to keep a virus away from our children. They have a responsibility to give our children an education. It’s my responsibility to keep my child from getting sick. He needs to have an education just like everybody else,” she said.
A parent of three daughters, Stephanie Maddox was next to approach the podium. She was brief but was clear about her case. She stated that she was angry because the district had multiple Facebook pages for all of the schools and said that they did not always share the same information, which left her confused at times. Stephanie announced that she had already submitted a form to the school citing that her daughters would be mask free in school. “Wearing a mask is not healthy,” she said.
In her comments, Kylee Hershberger stated that her daughter will be entering Kindergarten this year. She voiced her concerns about our community and what it once had been. “I have always loved the Arthur community. It seems as if something is shifting… and I am fearful to see where our world may be headed.”
Mary Rosas, was also another frustrated parent. “What are you going to do? Are you just going to mask the kids the rest of their school life? The virus isn’t going away… it is here. I don’t understand why you want to make the kids wear a mask all their lives. I feel like it should be an option. We as parents can make our own decisions. Shouldn’t kids have the right to see the other kids’ faces?” Mary voiced her concerns about new preschoolers who were entering school and how they wouldn’t get to see each others’ smiles. She said that it would be difficult for them to wear masks. At the end of her comments, she concluded, “Anybody can be a follower, but it takes greatness to be a leader. I hope there is greatness in this board to be a leader.”
Although he no longer had any children in the school system, 60-year old farmer, Darrel Gingrich attended the event as a concerned community citizen. “I think you have a teachable moment for these children – if you stand and say “we are not going to make you wear masks..” I believe we are going to be here a year from now. It is just going to continue until someone stops it – that is just my opinion.”
Illinois State Representative Brad Halbrook was also in attendance and came to voice his concerns as a parent. “It has been an honor and privilege to serve this community…” he began.
“Me and my colleagues in the Illinois General Assembly are working on a solution to this issue. There are no good solutions. I am here to touch on the fact that these mandates are unlawful. The governor is overusing his executive power,” he stated. Brad continued. “The tyranny will not end unless we make it end… “ This virus is creating a division in the way our administration works more than it ever has before. We have to give our children the best opportunities to thrive. We have a constitutional obligation to educate our youngsters…”
After several parents and members of the community spoke, ALAH School District Attorney, Brian Braun helped to answer questions regarding what would happen if the district decided to go against the governor’s mask mandate. Some of the consequences for going against the mask mandate included possible funding being taken away from the district, losing the ability to play in IHSA sports and not being a “recognized school.” For example, when 2022 ALAH seniors graduate, their diplomas would be unrecognized, although the attorney informed them that colleges and future employees would understand such events and not hold it against an individual as they move ahead in the future. Other concerns that the district would have to face would be liability and insurance – especially if someone were to fall sick from COVID and be sued in court. They could also lose having their attorney represent them in court if they were choosing to go against a state mandate.
Braun stated that there would probably be more school districts who would try to challenge the mandate. “Up until now, there was nothing to challenge – because we were all remote last year,” he said. At this time though, he informed the board that there weren’t many schools challenging the mandate. Board members also shared concerns about funding and when it would be cut off, should they decide to challenge the mandate. “Nobody knows. I am not a politician nor a doctor. I am not going to give you politics. My job is the law. I have to tell you what could happen and what may happen. I can tell you – they have the authority to cut off funding immediately. You need to understand what the threat is and decide with the appropriate risks,” he explained.
After attorney Braun had finished answering questions, one parent did have a question. “What are the repercussions if our children don’t wear masks?”
Superintendent Shannon Cheek answered. “We would try to offer them a mask. If they refuse, then we would have to send the child home.” The conversation quickly got heated.
“So you would refuse my child an education then?” the parent asked.
“Yes,” answered Cheek.
Afterward, some members of the audience retorted in a few angry outbursts in disagreement. Cheek continued. “As of now though, our return to school safe plan has not changed. The masks are not mandated,” he reminded them.
Vice President Monica Green also replied to some of the angry outbursts. “Don’t discount that we are also parents sitting here at the board. Please be kind to our board members. We are in a difficult position. I don’t think you would want to be sitting here either. Please be kind.”
At the end of Thursday night’s meeting, a vote was not taken since the meeting was informational only as well as it was an opportunity for parents and members of the community to ask questions and voice their concerns. A vote of whether or not to follow the mask mandate was scheduled to be taken at another special meeting.