When Barrington resident Courtney Holsworth learned the latest federal COVID-19 public health guidance was in favor of universal masking, the mother of three was disappointed but not surprised.

Since the pandemic began, Holsworth said her cautious optimism for a full return to a normal school experience has been quashed time and time again.

Barrington School District 220 earlier this month agreed to make masks optional for middle and high school students, but is now reviewing that plan in light of guidance released this week calling for all students, teachers and staff at schools to remain masked while indoors regardless of vaccination status.

“I’ve kind of had to let go of control, and mentally prepare myself for whatever is going to happen, unfortunately,” said Holsworth, who is among suburban parents pushing school districts to give parents the choice of whether or not their children wear masks in the classroom this fall.

“My 14-year-old son will be fine, because he’s the kind of kid that just goes with the flow, but I think the masks affect the younger children the most, making it hard to learn and socialize … And if we think all of the younger students are wearing their masks correctly, we’re kidding ourselves,” Holsworth said.

With the Illinois Department of Public Health announcing Tuesday it is embracing the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention masking recommendations — including universal indoor masking at schools — suburban school districts that recently approved less restrictive mask policies are scrambling once again to review their back-to-school guidance. Chicago Public Schools is already requiring all students and staff to wear masks regardless of vaccination status.

Given that local school boards decide how closely a district follows public health recommendations, which are not a mandate, the debate is not expected to end any time soon. Several school districts said they plan to revisit masking policies at their August board meetings.

At Elgin Unit School District 46, Superintendent Tony Sanders said Wednesday tentative plans called for requiring masks for students in pre-kindergarten through 6th grade, as they are not eligible for the vaccine, and were strongly recommended for unvaccinated students in grades 7-12.

Sanders said after receiving the latest guidance, the district immediately re-instituted the requirement that all staff and visitors wear a mask regardless of vaccination status, and officials are now “determining if we need to adjust our reopening plans.”

“Frankly, the challenge is the use of the word ‘recommendation,’” Sanders said, pointing out that the “wearing of masks has been strongly recommended now for over a year, including the July 9 guidance from the CDC.”

“As we strive to reopen our schoolhouse doors to 37,000 students for full days of in-person instruction — something we did not have at any point last school year — I need clear and definitive terms from our health authorities … If they mean shall, then do not say should or strongly recommend,” Sanders said.

At Community Unit School District 200 in Wheaton, where officials lifted mandatory mask-wearing at all grade levels earlier this month, Superintendent Jeff Schuler said in a Tuesday parent letter that officials are reviewing the latest guidance from the CDC and state health department.

“I understand that our school community has questions about what this updated guidance means for the upcoming school year. I ask for your understanding as we review and process these updates,” Schuler wrote.

Arlington Heights attorney Anthony Loizzi, whose firm represents 150 Illinois school districts, anticipated the updated guidance would prompt a deluge of emails and phone calls.

“We are being called constantly to review school districts’ return-to-learn, reopening and mitigation plans,” said Loizzi, a member of the Illinois Council of School Attorneys.

Earlier this week, the state’s health department warned “school districts that decide not to follow the CDC’s guidance should consult with their insurers regarding risk assumption and liability coverage. Insurers may be unwilling to cover liabilities created as a result of failure to adhere to public health guidance.”

While Loizzi said it’s not uncommon for school districts to be sued for a multitude of reasons, public entities including schools are afforded tort immunity from liability in many cases unless the injuries are proven to be the result of “willful and wanton” conduct.

Still, given the unprecedented nature of the pandemic, it is unclear whether a school district would be afforded such immunity if it decides not to adhere to the health guidance issued for schools by the IDPH, Loizzi said.

“The possible loss of tort immunity is very concerning for schools, especially in light of the fact that cases involving communicable diseases such as COVID-19, measles and influenza are typically not covered by most insurance policies,” he said.

Chicago attorney James Petrungaro said his firm’s school district clients “are certainly keeping in touch with their attorneys to review all aspects of their return to school plans.”

“Decisions being made by school boards should be rooted in public health metrics and data that is available, and also keeping in mind the school district’s impact on the entire community,” Petrungaro said, acknowledging that many districts are “having to deal with competing political interests.”

Former Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeanne Ives wasted little time weighing in on the issue, urging parents in a digital newsletter Wednesday to “Find Your Voice and Your Backbone. Don’t Let Your School Board Go Backwards and Reverse Mask Optional Policies.”

While some parents lament the additional precautions, others, including Arlington Heights resident Megan Lierman, remain skeptical that stricter CDC recommendations will prompt the Arlington Heights School District 25 board to revise the mask optional policy unanimously approved earlier this month.

“Our school board has ignored so much that was recommended, I doubt they will change anything, because they’ve made up their minds,” Lierman said.

While her eldest son, age 10, has asthma, and her 4-year-old son has physical health and sensory processing issues, Lierman said she is mostly worried about the virus infecting other children.

“My kids are healthy and strong, but I’m trying to get kids masked for the other children, some of whom have had organ transplants … This isn’t just about our kids, but all of the kids in the community,” Lierman said.

In a Wednesday letter to parents, District 25 Superintendent Lori Bein said while the district’s current mask policy was approved by the school board July 15, “flexibility continues to be important in case the health department guidance changes.”

“I want you to know that we are committed to being responsive to any changes in the COVID-19 environment. I speak with our local health departments at least weekly about District 25 in particular, and as things change, so will we,” Bein wrote.

School districts statewide have been in constant contact with local public health officials since the early days of the pandemic, and despite the ever-changing recommendations “all are trying to make an honest, good faith attempt to follow the guidance,” said John Burkey, executive director of the Large Unit District Association.

“Unfortunately, COVID is not going away, and it keeps mutating, but Illinois has done really well compared to some other states that are on fire right now,” Burkey said. “But even school districts in areas that have high vaccination rates are not immune from the virus spreading, and this delta variant seems to be more transmissible than the original COVID virus.”

Nevertheless, some parents, including Arlington Heights resident Marianne Corcoran, say they are worried the more stringent mask recommendations would cancel the choice for families that is at the heart of the current District 25 policy.

“I do not understand how a piece of cloth that is mass produced and sold in the grocery store is suddenly a life saving device,” Corcoran said, adding: “All of the mama bears are on high alert right now and we all want what is best for our own kids.”

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