As state says unvaccinated kids should wear masks, here's what suburban schools are doing so far
School districts across the region are diverging on whether to require students to wear masks when they return to classes next month as parents pressure educators from both sides of the issue.
On Monday night, the state's second-largest school system, Elgin Area School District U-46, mandated masks in elementary classrooms, St. Charles Unit District 303 made face coverings voluntary, and Geneva Unit District 304 deferred a decision.
The lack of uniformity comes even though the Illinois Department of Public Health made it clear Tuesday that unvaccinated children, including those 11 and younger who are ineligible for COVID-19 shots, should wear masks in schools, a policy that concurs with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommendations.
Still, some -- including Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200, Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211, Arlington Heights Elementary District 25, Barrington Unit District 220 -- are opting for voluntary masking, a move decried by concerned parents and applauded by anti-mask groups that have shown up in force to school board meetings.
Parent John Cushing told the District 211 board many young people already have resumed life normally.
"Why are you going to mask kids now, when for the past summer they've been off without any masks, going off to all these big events without having any masks?" he said.
But Jessica Banaszek, a parent who protested Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200's decision to let students forgo masks, said it was premature and took families by surprise.
"Masking is still required in doctors' offices," she said. "It's still required on public transportation and in airports, places where people congregate, and school is one of those places."
Many other suburban school systems -- Palatine Township Elementary District 15, Lake Zurich Unit District 95, Burlington Central School District 301 -- are taking a wait-and-see approach as Illinois sees a rise in new infections blamed on the highly contagious delta variant of the virus.
While schools have varying approaches, the Illinois Department of Public Health on Tuesday affirmed that masks should be worn indoors in public by all individuals who are not fully vaccinated.
"This includes in schools, many of which serve children younger than 12 years who currently are not eligible for vaccination," IDPH spokeswoman Melaney Arnold said. "The goal is to allow for in-person learning as safely as possible. Masks have been shown to be effective at reducing transmission of the virus."
The CDC recommends that "if you are not fully vaccinated and aged 2 or older, you should wear a mask in indoor public places" to protect against COVID-19.
And, on Monday, the Itasca-based American Academy of Pediatrics went one step further, urging school districts to require universal masking for students and staff members, regardless of vaccination status, to reduce the risk of infections in unvaccinated people. The organization of pediatricians reports that more than 4 million children have tested positive for COVID-19, 16,756 have been hospitalized and 346 have died from the virus nationwide.
"It's important to use every tool in our tool kit to safeguard children from COVID-19," said Dr. Sara Bode, a pediatrician serving on the group's Council on School Health.
Elgin U-46 officials on Monday decided to start the year requiring masks in prekindergarten through sixth grade. The district staffed elementary schools to lower class sizes and provide for three feet of distancing, officials said.
"This strategy coupled with universal masking in elementary will minimize the need to have students in quarantine," Superintendent Tony Sanders said.
The district will "strongly encourage" students in middle and high schools -- or those who have access to vaccines -- to wear masks.
If data suggests low transmission rates in schools and in the community, especially through the district's regular testing of students, then U-46 may begin peeling back mitigation strategies, starting with allowing students to get within three feet of each other, Sanders said.
Indian Prairie Unit District 204 also is taking a tiered approach to its mask policy and other mitigation efforts depending on community transmission levels.
Based on current metrics, masks are expected to be recommended -- but not required -- for students and employees when classes resume next month, administrators said. That could change if transmission rates move in the wrong direction.
"Our county is doing well, but numbers are beginning to uptick," Superintendent Adrian Talley said during a school board meeting Monday. "As we monitor the level of positivity, we may have to add an additional layer of protection, and that could include a requirement for all to wear masks."
District 200 leaders cited high vaccination rates in DuPage County as one factor in the move to drop masks. More than 58% of the county's population is fully vaccinated, state figures show.
"Local metrics played a big part," board President Chris Crabtree said. "What we did last year and we're able to accomplish with mitigations also has played a part."
Mask rules have widened the gulf between parents preparing for another school year in the shadow of the pandemic.
District 204 mom Melissa Volanti said families should have a choice, saying parents know what's best for their children amid the "unique times" of the pandemic.
"They haven't been without loss and sacrifice. Our children, most importantly, have lost a little spark of innocence, a year of education without seeing their favorite teachers and friends in a 'normal setting,'" she said.
Darcy Wexelbaum, the parent of an incoming District 204 fourth-grader, expressed concerns about the thousands of students who are not eligible for vaccination. Though grateful to be returning to a full day of in-person learning this year, she said, layered COVID-19 prevention strategies are necessary to protect those who are not inoculated -- including universal masking.
"I was once told never to gamble with anything that I was not willing to lose," Wexelbaum said. "The health and safety of our children, teachers, school personnel and other vulnerable members of our community are at risk. Is this a risk our district is willing to take?
• Daily Herald staff writers Elena Ferrarin, Susan Sarkauskas and Mick Zawislak, and Shaw Media contributed to this report