Hillsboro Board Adopts Masked School Plan

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After more than an hour and a half of pointed discussion, the Hillsboro School Board voted 4-3 in favor of a back-to-school plan that includes the governor's new mask mandate. Board members Kassie Greenwood, Nathan Kirby, Barbara Adams and Matt Lentz voted in favor of the motion.  Dan Tester, John Lentz and Bryce Rupert voted against.

"I am recommending to the board that we follow the governor's executive order, the guidelines of the CDC, IDPH, and Montgomery County Health Department regarding masking," Superintendent David Powell said to begin the discussion.  "It is my hope that we can relax that later.  My sole goal is to keep kids in school."

Masking allows social distance spaces to be reduced and allows the district to follow "test to stay" options instead of quarantines, the superintendent said.  Under test to stay, students in close contact with a positive who would have been required to quarantine can remain in school if they are symptom-free and test negative on the first, third, fifth and seventh days.

"If we do require masks, we will reduce the number of quarantines by 80 percent," Powell said.  "I am confident of that."

In response to a question from the audience about why the "test to stay" only applies if masked, Powell said the health department will only not quarantine if students are masked.  

Dr. Josh Billington, who was present at the meeting along with Dr. Ben Cady to answer medical questions, explained that is because the likelihood of spread while masked is much less.

Board member Bryce Rupert questioned the part of the plan that exempted vaccinated people from quarantine.

"They are much less likely to contract it," health department administrator Hugh Satterlee answered, "just like a person who has contracted COVID less than 90 days ago.  If I've had COVID, I've had one strain. The vaccine is proving effective against multiple strains."

"How long does the vaccine last," Rupert asked.

"To be determined," Dr. Billington said.  "We know based on the trials that it is likely beyond a year."

"The reason that I'm asking the questions is that there has been inconsistency in the information we've been given," Rupert said.

"We deal with that every day," Dr. Billington said.  "It's dynamic.  Things change every day," he pointed out, using diabetes as an example.

Satterlee said earlier in the day, a parent who tested positive brought in five kids in the family over the course of the day; three tested positive.

"We weren't seeing that two months ago," Satterlee said.

Dr. Ben Cady said that in recent weeks, he has seen entire households who are positive.

Board member John Lentz asked about hospitalization rates among kids.

"It's still low, but it's higher with the Delta variant.  We're seeing pediatric ICU units full," Dr. Billington said.

Board President Matthew Lentz asked about vaccinations for those under age 12.

"We don't know," Dr. Cady said.  "We're still hearing this fall."

“We each want to come to the best solution,” Rupert said shortly before the issue came to a vote. “We just have differing opinions on what the best solution is.”

“I sat here two weeks ago and recommended mask optional,” the superintendent said. “I’m not a hard-core mask guy, but things have changed.”

“I’m a local control guy,” board member John Lentz said.  “Where does it end?  We’ve stolen a year from kids.  Are we going to steal another year? To mask these kids, where little kids can’t see facial expressions–that’s a problem.  Two weeks ago we sat in here as a board and no one was in a mask.  Then one individual as a governor waves a wand . . . Psychologically it’s effecting them.  There are studies out there.”

During the portion of the agenda set aside for public comment, the board heard from four school district teachers–one speaking on behalf of each building in the district–and three members of the public.

High school English teacher Matt Vaughn said he had contacted teachers in the building, and,"the message was unequivocally that we support the back-to-school plan presented at the last meeting."  That contact was before the governor's new mask mandate, however, so he offered no opinion on that.

"We know that students learn best when they are in school, and teachers work best face-to-face," junior high literature teacher Florence Clark said, citing an example of a student who missed  more than 50 days from quarantine.  "Please, no remote.  We need to do whatever we can to get students back to school and keep them there."

Beckemeyer Title teacher Beth Harnetiaux also told stories of students falling behind due to numerous quarantines.  "We need our kids in the classroom with us."

Lynn Rivas, Coffeen pre-K teacher, said "we believe we need to do everything we can to keep kids in the classroom and keep them learning."

Long Clayton, Hillsboro restaurant owner, said he was opposed to mandatory masks.  "If we keep wearing masks as a fear factor, this is never going to end."

Hillsboro resident Don Karban said he supported using masks in the classroom. "We need to use every weapon we have at our disposal.  If one of those is masks, we ought to use them."

"No one likes to wear masks," retired Dr. Barbara Mulch said, "but I'll turn on a dime when necessary.  There's a time when you relax, but these are waves.  There's a time when you do what it takes."  She asked the board to make a policy based on the number of cases; mask when high-risk and relax masks when not.

At various points during the meeting, members of the public voiced comments from the room, including about negative impacts of masking and parent's rights to choose if their children mask.  Discussion also followed on the health departments legal power to quarantine, and the school district's power to enforce quarantines.

The superintendent presented a tentative fiscal year 2022 budget of $22.8 million, one that predicted a surplus of nearly half a million.

"We've been waiting a long time for a budget with some good news," Powell said to begin the presentation. "It's the best shape we've been in for the 13 years I've been superintendent."

The five operating funds were predicted at a surplus of just under $300,000 including a predicted $261,487 deficit in the education fund.

The budget predicts a total fund balance at the end of FY22 of $10.7 million, including $3.1 million in the education fund and $3.8 million in the working cash fund.

Because of the rosier financial forecast, Powell said he added back into the budget transportation for sports and extra-curricular activities.  That had been removed several years ago when the budget was more dire, requiring athletic teams to fundraise for their bus trips.

The budget predicts revenue from local taxes to be down, but money from state sources to be up.  Assessed value in the district will be similar to last year, but revenue will be down due to a rate reduction. The budget predicts an increase in state "evidence based funding" of about half a million.

For fiscal year 2021, education fund revenues were $950,000 over what was anticipated.  Powell said that was from Vistra, owners of the former Coffeen Power Plant, who had caught up on some negotiated payments to the district during the fiscal year.

The board set a budget hearing date of Tuesday, Sept. 14, before formal action at next month's regular board meeting. The budget will be on display at the unit office until then.

Near the beginning of the meeting, district curriculum director Hope McBrain reported meeting with 19 new staff members this week.  High school principal Patti Heyen reported that students had earned 34 credits during the summer school credit recovery program.

"I want to give a shout out to my janitors," maintenance director Fred Butler reported.  Summer work at Beckemeyer is finished; roof work at the junior high is not quite completed yet.

After a closed session, the board accepted the resignation of two teachers, junior high social studies teacher Mike Koniak and high school social studies teacher Joe Vanzo, and food service worker Shery Baron. They hired Sydney Webster as junior high girls basketball coach.

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