Panhandle Reaffirms Mandatory Masking

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The members of the Panhandle School Board revisited its district learning plan during their meeting on Monday Aug. 16, and reaffirmed the decision that masking will be mandatory at Panhandle Schools due to Governor J.B. Pritzker’s mandate.

Andrea Curtis-Horath,a mother of six children in the Panhandle School District, spoke about her disappointment in the board’s decision to follow the governor’s mandate and not keep health decisions local. 

She also provided the board with five questions, including asking where it was cited that the school would lose recognition and what the difference was regarding insurance liability in not wearing a mask and the potential illnesses or death in a child wearing a mask.

Curtis-Horath provided her email address and chastised the board members and the district for not having their email addresses on the website. 

Superintendent Aaron Hopper said that there is a common email that all board members have access to on the district website, but Curtis-Horath said that email bounced back to her.

“We thought we had it fixed as we want to be as transparent as possible. We don’t want to cause stress for the public and we want to have good pathways for communication,” Hopper told The Journal-News after confirming the email was not working correctly.

Curtis-Horath requested that all of the board members take time to answer all of her questions and that they should resign if they were not willing to do so. In closing Curtis-Horath condemned the governor’s “tyranical” behavior and the board for not standing up to it.

Hopper started the discussion of the learning plan with a recap of the events since the board’s special meeting on Aug. 3, in which they approved a plan for optional masking, but the plan would be updated if there were changes put forth by the state, the Illinois State Board of Education, or if there were an increase in COVID cases in the area. 

The following day, Governor Pritzker announced that masks would be mandatory in schools and an email went out to parents stating that the district would follow the mandate. Hopper also explained some of the repercussions of not following the order, which included loss of recognition by ISBE and the forfeiture of the ability to play IHSA and IESA sports. Hopper also told Curtis-Horath that the statement saying recognition would be taken away was on the ISBE website and that schools have already had their recognition taken away.

Board member Linda Brown asked if the district would lose funding if they went against the mandate. Hopper said the loss of state funding and Cares Act funding were both possible.

Board member Scott Cowdrey said he was not in favor of the mandate, but the board couldn’t disregard the Governor’s order without causing devastating harm to the district. He added that it was his belief that the district had no other choice than to follow the mandate.

Hopper added that he and other superintendents around the state believed they were making inroads with giving more control to districts themselves, but that ended when Governor Pritzker made his announcement out of nowhere on Aug. 4.

Brown asked how losing recognition would affect college bound students. Hopper said that it could cause problems for those students. Lincolnwood Principal Ken Schuster added that it is difficult for schools to get their accreditation back once it is lost.

Hopper said that the mandate was inconvenient and not fun or popular, but he believed that the district’s best course of action was to follow the mandate. He also noted that ISBE implemented a rule that districts cannot offer remote learning to a student, unless that student is in quarantine. 

The board would vote on the revised district learning plan with the mandatory masking, which was approved 6-1. Board member Brett Slightom cast the lone dissenting vote, saying that it shouldn’t be unanimous.

During the second public comments section, Curtis-Horath asked if the implementation of mandatory masking was done without school board consent. Board President Teri Payne said that the initial plan called for the district to follow the guidance of the state and ISBE, so board approval wasn’t needed.

In other business, the board approved the consent agenda, the second reading of board policies and a tentative district budget for the 2022 fiscal year. Hopper said that the budget will include a three percent increase in expenditures, an increase in some grant funding and a change in the Christian County tax bill due to a levy adjustment.

A formal budget meeting will be held at 6:45 p.m. on Sept. 20, before the regular board meeting.

Hopper also discussed the summer maintenance program, commending the staff led by Jason Wagahoff in getting the schools ready for the new year and mentioning that there are some items still outstanding (the lighting at the high school parking lot, the Farmersville Grade School roof and the addition of swipe cards for the doors at Farmersville).

Board member Dana Pitchford asked about the motion activated lights in the Raymond school buildings. Hopper said they were newly installed and that the lights, coupled with the Pelican HVAC system, have resulted in a significant cost savings.

Hopper also mentioned that Panhandle has over 500 students signed up for early registration, which is the first time the district has topped that number in several years. He added that he believed the Pre-K program would also be filled.

Payne asked if school lunches would still be free this year, which was brought up at the previous board meeting. Hopper said breakfast and tray lunch would be free and if a student gets all components of a meal off a la carte that would also count. He added that parents received an email about the program on Aug. 16, and if there are any concerns, they should reach out to Bev Lipe.

Before entering into closed session at 7:35 p.m., Hopper said that the district would like to do the athletic transportation waiver again, which allows students to ride to and from games with a parent, and that plans are underway for a “family fest” at Farmersville Grade School.

After meeting in closed session until 8:42 p.m., the board approved the resignation of Dana Schott as sophomore class sponsor and Lincolnwood yearbook sponsor and approved the employment of Todd Brown as maintenance and custodian, Kyle Wolfe as assistant baseball coach and Baylee Beal as Farmersville Grade School paraprofessional.

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