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State school board gets pushback on mask mandate

A capacity crowd packed into the Illinois State Board of Education room on Wednesday as many more stood outside the building to protest the state’s new indoor mask mandate in all public and nonpublic schools.

“I’m so tired of hearing how resilient our kids are. Resilience is something you choose,” said Ruby Johnson, a mother of seven children from New Lenox. “Our kids did not choose to be masked all day, unable to see their friends or teachers smile at them, to have to COVID test to stay in school, to be burdened with the idea that they carry an invisible disease that they could make their friends sick with.”

Gov. JB Pritzker issued the mask mandate in an executive order Aug. 4, shortly after the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued updated guidelines for schools in response to a surge in the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19.

Those guidelines urge “universal indoor masking” by all students over the age of 2, staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.

Since then, ISBE has put more than two dozen public and nonpublic school systems on probationary status for refusing to comply with the mandate, although some have since had their status restored after later agreeing to comply.

Under the state’s administrative code, schools can be placed on probation for “deficiencies that present a health hazard or a danger to students or staff.” When that happens, the schools are given 60 days to submit a plan for correcting the deficiency and, if they fail to do so, risk losing their state recognition altogether.

“I’m taking this requirement extremely seriously because every single student in Illinois deserves a safe in-person education this fall,” State Superintendent Carmen Ayala said at the start of Wednesday’s meeting. “I know this is a difficult time to be a leader, and I deeply appreciate the cooperation and the leadership of all the superintendents and principals across our state.”

But a number of local and regional superintendents argued that the decision about how to reopen safely should be left to local leaders, just as it was during the early phases of the pandemic.

“For decades now in Springfield, our school leadership across the state has fought one battle after another over state mandates,” said Kyle Thompson, the regional superintendent for Region 11 in east-central Illinois. “Our politicians at the state capitol are often well intentioned when they add to our daily demands over the curriculum we provide, the meals we serve, our dress codes and much more. However, too often they don’t realize the costs that come from these more isolated decisions. Under COVID-19, mandates have become politically polarizing and our students are suffering as a result of it.”

Shane Gordon, superintendent of Bluford USD 318 in southern Illinois, said the polarizing atmosphere surrounding mask mandates has been a challenge for all school officials in Illinois, and he said ISBE’s strict enforcement of the mandate was adding to the challenge.

“My district did choose to follow the mandate, by a 4-3 vote,” he said. “Quite honestly, this decision was one made out of fear of this organization and the consequences associated. I’m before you today to express that fear is no way to govern, and fear is no way to lead.”

Since that vote, Gordon said, he and members of the Bluford school board have been targets of harsh criticism in the community.

“I wish to express the current situation created by Springfield is untenable in many school districts across the state,” he said. “Good people are leaving as a result of this.”

But not all superintendents who spoke Wednesday opposed the mask mandate or ISBE’s enforcement of it.

Sheri Smith, superintendent of the Forrestville Valley School District in northwest Illinois, argued that putting districts on probation might be too lenient because it actually gives districts additional time to continue defying the executive order.

“Why do I care about other school districts? Generally speaking, I don’t have time to do that,” Smith said. “However, without immediate consequence and accountability, superintendents and local school boards are left to once again navigate impossible scenarios. Probationary status does not limit a school’s ability to participate in [interscholastic] events. That means locally we’re left to determine if our students are placed in undue risk by participating with noncompliant districts.”

Those statements came during the public comment portion of the board’s meeting. The board took no further action on the mask mandate, and Ayala gave no indication that she intends to ease up on the enforcement of it.

St. Anne Grade School Board votes to defy state mask mandate

ST. ANNE — The St. Anne Grade School District 256 School Board voted 5-2 at a special board meeting Tuesday to implement a mask-optional policy in defiance of Gov. JB Pritzker’s universal indoor mask mandate for all pre-k –12 schools.

School started Wednesday for both the grade school and St. Anne High School. The schools share the same superintendent, Charles Stegall, but have different school boards.

The high school is still following the mandate, Stegall said.

The board’s decision to defy the order went against school administration’s recommendation, he said.

The school board for St. Anne High School passed a mask-optional resolution prior to the executive order, but it included language that a state mandate would mean bringing mitigations such as masking back into play.

Jed Beaupre, board president for the grade school, said that this was the first time he could recall in his 10 years on the board that all the members were not unanimous on a decision.

Members that voted in favor of the mask-optional policy were Tim Wendt, Louie Farber, Jed Beaupre, Gilberto Miramontes, and Lydia Leveque. "No" votes were from Barbara Emerson and Chris Tolly.

All seven members voted yes regarding the resolution to ask the state to return local control to districts.

Beaupre said the board held the special meeting after some board members expressed they were unhappy with Pritzker’s mandate taking local control from schools.

He said board members had a lengthy discussion of the pros and cons of defying the executive order, along with the ramifications of the decision.

“The administration and our lawyers were very clear in saying they recommend following the mandate,” Beaupre said.

Pritzker issued the order Aug. 4 to slow the spread of the highly transmissible delta variant of COVID-19 and prevent outbreaks in schools. The mandate enforces recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and American Academy of Pediatrics.

The Illinois State Board of Education has so far put at least 21 school districts on probation for defying the mandate.

“If the State Board has any concerns about compliance, then we will work with the State Board to provide them with whatever information they need,” Stegall said in an email. “Any changes that might be necessary would be brought to the school board for review and response.”

State officials have said non-compliant districts stand to lose state recognition.

Failure to submit a corrective action plan after being placed on probation would lead to non-recognition status, meaning total loss of access to state funding and loss of the school’s ability to engage in any Illinois High School Association and Illinois Elementary School Association athletic competitions.

“We will deal with those [consequences] as they come,” Beaupre said. “I think most board members understand this is probably a temporary thing, but we will keep masks optional as long as we can. As a small district, we cannot afford to lose funding.”

Beaupre said that although the district may inevitably have to reverse the mask-optional policy, the purpose of passing the resolution was to set the precedent in favor of local control.

Before the executive order, the district surveyed its parents and 87 percent indicated they were in favor of having masks optional, Beaupre said.

“Our hopes are that more boards decide to do this to show ISBE and the governor that we need to have local control,” he said.

Fortitude makes 2nd run at city shelter

KANKAKEE — Fortitude Community Outreach is making a second attempt to locate a homeless shelter in downtown Kankakee.

With this attempt, there is a twist.

On Tuesday, the Kankakee Planning Board, by a 6-0 vote, approved the needed conditional use permit request. The matter must now go before the Kankakee City Council for its OK.

Fortitude leadership has been down this road before.

In September 2020, Fortitude’s request to operate a 7-day-a-week shelter inside the former St. Paul’s Lutheran School building, 240 S. Dearborn Ave., was rejected by an overwhelming 12-2 vote by the Kankakee City Council.

The matter will be brought before the city council in September. The date has not yet been determined.

Just as was the case one year ago, the planning board unanimously approved Fortitude’s conditional use permit request to operate the shelter facility within the commercially zoned downtown district.

Fortitude is seeking to operate the shelter five nights a week — Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday — at the site. For Wednesday and Saturday, The Salvation Army would provide hotel/motel vouchers for those in need of shelter, Fortitude leadership explained.

If rejected to be the single site for its PADS program, Fortitude will once again operate its program two nights a week at St. Paul’s and at rotating sites throughout the area.


What is different about the 2021 request is that it would last for only one shelter season, which operates from Oct. 1, 2021, to May 1, 2022.

The reason for a one-year permit request is the organization, headed by Executive Director Dawn Broers, is hoping to construct Fortitude’s own 4,830-square-foot permanent shelter within Kankakee to house the homeless. Broers said after the meeting, the new location, which is currently being designed, is anticipated to be able to nightly accommodate up to 30 individuals, seven days a week.

After the meeting, Broers was tight-lipped regarding further details as she stated the location is still in the process of being acquired. The organization is also raising money for the development, the cost of which was also not stated.

Incorporated in April 2018, Fortitude has been offering shelter since January 2019. It has been operating its Public Action to Deliver Shelter (PADS) program out of a collection of churches.

Typically, the shelter provides food, beds and shower services for eight to 15 people per night. It has the capacity to provide services for up to 20 as it currently operates.

Because the shelter site changes on a regular basis, Broers said, it makes it difficult for people to remember where the shelter is on a particular evening.

The shelter is in operation from 6:30 p.m. to 7 a.m. At least one paid staff member would be on-site at all times the shelter is open.


Regarding the planning board vote, the members appeared in agreement that a homeless shelter is needed. Members stated that a stressful life for a homeless person or family is only compounded by an inability to find a warm place to lay their head at night.

Kankakee Planner Mike Hoffman noted there is clearly a need for temporary shelter in the community.

Kankakee Mayor Chris Curtis noted Wednesday he likes the fact that the request is only for a year, meaning if there are issues they can be more easily addressed.

Curtis said he still has concerns about how the homeless will function during the harsh winter months when the shelter is not open. He would like to see other organizations step forward to lend assistance.

“We have a responsibility to help those who need to be helped,” he said. “But this is not an exclusive Kankakee problem. Homelessness is in every community.”

The rub for locating the shelter at St. Paul’s last year was the concern that potential new downtown development would not view a homeless shelter as a step forward in revitalizing the area.

The argument against that thought by shelter supporters was that the homeless are here, whether there is a shelter or not.

The St. Paul’s location is located immediately east of the downtown location where the Kankakee Farmers’ Market is held on Saturdays.

Because the shelter is closed during the summer months and into the early fall, Jack Tison, a Fortitude board member and steering committee member, stated the St. Paul’s shelter does not interfere with such things as the farmers market or other downtown summertime events.

13-year-old arrested with loaded gun

KANKAKEE — Kankakee police arrested a 13-year-old juvenile male on a weapons charge this week after police say he was found to be in possession of a loaded .380 caliber pistol.

According to Kankakee police, an officer was dispatched to the 1900 block of East Meadowview Avenue in reference to suspicious activity at 3:33 a.m. Monday.

The officer located a vehicle parked in front of a residence occupied by three male juveniles, ages 13, 15 and 17, police said.

The officer reported smelling the odor of raw cannabis as well as seeing suspected cannabis on the dashboard.

While patting down the 13-year-old male, the officer felt the grip of a pistol in the front of the juvenile’s pants, police said.

The juvenile was charged with unlawful use of a weapon.

City ordinance citations were issued to all three juveniles for curfew violations, possession of cannabis and parental responsibility.

Another juvenile arrested

A second juvenile was arrested by Kankakee police on Aug. 14 after he was found to be in possession of a loaded firearm.

At 4:12 p.m. an officer spotted a vehicle traveling east in the 1200 block of East Oak Street in the south alley at a high-rate of speed, according to police.

The vehicle turned onto East Court Street from North Cottage Avenue and began to weave in and out of traffic without using turn signals still at a high rate of speed.

The officer continued to follow the vehicle, which continued into the Crestlane Drive area.

The juvenile was a passenger in the vehicle and fled on foot when the vehicle stopped. The officer apprehended the juvenile after a short pursuit, police said.

The officer observed a firearm partially hanging out of a hole in the juvenile’s pants, according to police.

The firearm was loaded with a round in the chamber. The drum magazine with a 50-round capacity was loaded close to full capacity, police said.

Police contacted juvenile probation.