Both Rockton and Kinnikinnick vote to make masks optional


Parents and families spoke and listened at the special Kinnikinnick school board meeting on Feb. 14, 2022

At simultaneous meetings in Rockton and Roscoe on Monday, Feb. 14, 2022, two more school boards voted to remove their mask requirements for students. They say that masks, though optional now, are still highly recommended for their students. Masks are still required for teachers and staff until next week.

The decisions affect pre-K to 8th grade students in the Kinnikinnick and Rockton school districts, including Stephen Mack and Roscoe Middle School, which feed into Hononegah Community High School. Hononegah had already made masks optional. Like Prairie Hill and Belvidere, it was a named defendant in the lawsuit in which a judge issued a temporary restraining order (TRO) against Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Feb. 4, 2022. The judge also voided the rule changes of the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) that implemented Gov. Pritzker's executive orders, which had forced schools to require masks.

Both decisions will take effect immediately for students, as both superintendents have sent out emails to staff and  parents to prepare them for the possible decision. And for staff and teachers, school administrators believe that when children see teachers wearing masks until next week. it will provide a sense of stability for them, especially for younger children who have never been to school without masks. Rockton Superintendent Glenn Terry said that, this way, "kids can get a nice transition and not have to wonder why the whole world is changing." 

Both school districts had always planned to remove mitigations one by one, one layer at a time. In fact, they had already planned to reconsider their mask mandates at their next regular meeting, but decided to hold a special meeting first. Rockton's opening plan had listed several metrics, such as lower infection levels, that would have automatically triggered fewer mitigations. But the board decided to remove all metrics, instead discussing whether to make additional changes at each board meeting. To start with, they are making masks optional but highly recommended for students. In eight days, they will remove mask requirements for staff and visitors, so student conferences could be held without masks.

In a statement earlier on Monday, Kinnikinnick Superintendent Keli Freedlund told Rockton-Roscoe News:

The Kinnikinnick District has actively been working on a plan that moves us forward while maintaining a commitment to the safety and well-being of our students and staff. All of us share the common desire for an "exit strategy" from the pandemic while recognizing there is a high degree of disagreement on the where, when and how. To provide our district the most stability and consistency through any challenge it is our process of governance that must remain intact for the good of the District and our school community.

She sent an email at 4:00 p.m to the parents in her district .:

Tonight the Board of Education will meet to discuss the Kinnikinnick Mitigation Plan. There is a possibility that changes could be made regarding masking. It could be late before I am able to communicate a final decision to you and want to give your family ample time to digest a change.

We suggest using this evening to:

  • Discuss with your child the masking choice that your family would make at this time IF the Board of Education makes a change.
  • Reinforce that all individual choices should be respected. Please report any disrespectful behavior to the school principal immediately.
  • Some students have only known school with masks, please remind your child that this is only one part of our school strategies to keep them safe.

Thank you!

Rockton Superintendent Glenn Terry told his board that he had already sent a similar email to parents in his district and had another email prepared for parents in the event that the school board decided to make masks optional. His entire staff received an email about dealing with bullying. Both Rockton and Kinnikinnick had developed lesson plans for teachers and social workers to use, explaining the change to the children and emphasizing the importance of respecting each person's decision about masks.

The Kinnikinnick school board had distributed its planned revisions before the meeting. But the community members, who filled the grandstands in the Kinnikinnick Elementary School gym, did not all seem pacified. When most speakers came to the microphone, they argued against mask mandates as if these requirements weren't about to be voted away.

Some community members didn't seem to trust the school board anymore, and a few even said so. One speaker in Roscoe lectured the school board for allowing Gov. Pritzker to require masks on busses. She was correct that the Governor's mandate doesn't apply to school busses, but that's because masks on public transportation is a Federal requirement.

Two of the speakers at the Kinnikinnick meeting, Josh LaBree and a local piano teacher, said they planned to run for school board in the fall. LaBree told the board, "I want to declare my intention to take one of your positions in the next election."

Kinnikinnick board member Scott Meyer thanked Superintendent Keli Freedlund for her work, saying he appreciated how she calmly listened to a parent yell at her, but he strongly stated that administrators and teachers should not be treated that way. Some people in the crowd then asked him to repeat his name "so we know who to run against."

Many of the mask mandate opponents who spoke at last week's meeting in Rockton were in Roscoe this week, speaking at the Kinnikinnick school board meeting. Not all of them were local residents.

For example, Pastor Steve Cassell, pastor of Beloved Church in Lena, IL, warned both school boards that if they didn't remove the mask mandates, he would help parents in Roscoe and Roscoe to sue the school board members as individuals and to charge them with child abuse. Cassell's church website says, "We were founded on the truths of God's unconditional Love, amazing Grace and majestic Restoration available through the completed work of Jesus Christ." Cassell is best known for filing a lawsuit against Gov. J.B. Pritzker's ban on gatherings of more than 10 people.

Cassell also claimed, incorrectly, that the attorneys hired by the school boards actually work for insurance companies, not the school boards who pay them. (As he said that, Kinnikinnick Superintendent Keli Freedlund shook her head No, but he may not have seen her.)

Scott Robinson, a Rockton school board member who has practiced law for 20 years, referred to the threats from the previous week: "In my professional opinion, it was all nonsense. This school board is not subject to individual civil liability for making decisions that we think are in the best interest of kids." 

Most, though not all, speakers at the meetings claimed that the school boards were knowingly violating the recent court ruling that had neutralized the Governor's mandate. But speaking as an attorney, Robinson disagreed, saying that his district was not covered by the TRO against the Governor's mandate. "We [Rockton] enacted a policy legitimately and lawfully. The governor's mask mandate came later. [Our policy was] not affected by the governor's mandate, it's not affected by the TRO. It's the rule."

Robinson says he supports 1st Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech. "It's fine to come to a school meeting and to threaten school members with lawsuits - I guess... We're big boys and girls up here and we can take it. That's what we signed up for... The distressing thing for me, for a lot of people in this community, is the disruption that was caused in our schools last week."

As a Hononegah English teacher before he was an attorney, Robinson taught and led discussions on Henry David Thoreau's essay Civil Disobedience. "I consider it to be a legitimate form of protest," he said. "However, I don't think that necessarily what happened in our schools last week was civil disobedience, in the classical sense. I think what happened was that kids, encouraged by their parents, decided to violate school rules that they didn't like... We can't as a community, as citizens,  be teaching that it's okay to simply not follow a rule that you don't like." Robinson himself said he wore a mask at school because "that's what we voted for," though he personally doesn't believe masks are effective and wanted all along for them to be optional.

Robinson stressed that if the school board decided to change their mask policy, "It's not going to be based on the disruption that occurred in our schools last week. It's not going to be based on any sort of threats or bullying or intimidation."

Addressing the crowd in the Rockton Grade School gym, another board member added, "I can speak for myself and maybe others. We knew this is coming and we've been looking to do this and we've wanted to do this. That's really what's changed. It's not that you guys have swayed my opinion... I realize that some people may believe that. But we have the opportunity now. That's why I'm supporting this."

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