“This is how we keep our kids in school and how we keep them healthy,” said Superintendent Dr. Greggory Fuerstenau at a special meeting of the Litchfield School Board on Thursday evening, Aug. 5, at Litchfield High School.
In the nearly two-hour meeting, the board would vote 4-2 to approve the district’s re-opening plan for schools, which starts for students in Litchfield on Aug. 13. Voting in favor of the re-opening plan were President Julie Abel, Mark Bloome, Mark Fleming and Val Cain. Voting against the plan were Gregg Hires and David Belusko. Board member Ron Anglin was absent from the meeting. About a dozen people attended the special meeting.
Highlights of the plan include following the governor’s recent mandate for universal masking of all students in grades pre-K through 12 and all staff members. School will resume five days a week with full days.
Elementary students will have mask breaks during recess and throughout the day. They will eat breakfast and lunch in their classrooms.
Middle school students will not have access to lockers this year, but high school students will be able to visit their lockers three times a day. Breakfast and lunch plans are still being worked out for middle school and high school students. Students will also participate in physical education this year, and will be able to dress out and have access to the locker room areas.
School nurses explained that CDC (Center for Disease Control) guidelines reduced the distance between desks from six feet to three feet, allowing better configurations in classrooms, as well as opportunities for students to work together and interact more than the previous year. In addition, a new policy allows for a “test to stay” policy. In classrooms where there is universal masking, if a positive case is found, close contacts do not have to be quarantined if all parties were wearing a mask and students test negative on days one, three, five and seven, using rapid COVID tests. The nursing team thinks that will allow for fewer quarantine days.
In opening the nearly hour-long presentation, Dr. Fuerstenau said the start to this school year is already better than the 2020-2021 school year, which started with hybrid learning plans and students only attending school in person on certain days.
He added that sports teams are already practicing and the high school band is working on routines.
“It’s not all negative when you look at where we are to start the school year,” said Dr. Fuerstenau.
In continuing his presentation, he explained the “test to stay” protocol, as well as quarantine guidelines, noting they are set by the health department, not the school district. He added that the Illinois State Board of Education no longer requires the district to provide remote learning to students, unless certain requirements for homebound learning are met.
The team of school nurses for the district, including Kendra Kirby, Teresa Hays and Robin Engstrom, made a presentation to the board. They talked about the rules for close contact among students, which has changed this year to three feet from six feet. They also encouraged parents to keep kids home from school if they have any of the COVID symptoms, like fever, headache, cough, shortness of breath, body aches, fatigue and loss of taste and smell, among others.
Kirby said that even ahead of the start to the school year, 30 students and staff are already in quarantine due to COVID, including eight positive cases.
Dr. Dan Wujek of Litchfield Family Practice Center also attended the board meeting briefly to answer questions. He told the board the new variant is more contagious and spreads more quickly. Dr. Wujek noted that previously each positive case could infect two to three people. Under the delta variant, each positive case could infect six to ten other people.
Dr. Fuerstenau asked Dr. Wujek about whether masking will slow the spread.
“I would love to have my kids not in masks,” said Dr. Wujek. “But in light of keeping kids in school, masks still provide good protection.”
He added that he didn’t feel the students needed to wear masks outdoors. Board member Gregg Hires asked about wearing masks for physical education classes, and Dr. Wujek said it depended on their proximity. If they were outdoors or spread out appropriately, then masks were not necessarily needed for PE.
Abel said she had several parents reach out to her about masks being harmful to students.
“I sure hope not because I sometimes spend seven to eight hours straight in surgery,” said Dr. Wujek.
He added that in normal, indoor conditions, breathing through a mask is not harmful to students.
Hires asked if wearing masks could be mentally draining on kids, and Dr. Wujek said it could in some cases, just as it is for some adults.
Hires also asked if the masks killed the virus, and Dr. Wujek said they did not.
“Then where does it go?” Hires asked.
Dr. Wujek said that unless it was an N95 mask, no face masks provide 100 percent protection from COVID, but masks would certainly help to curb the spread around schools.
Dr. Fuerstenau reminded the board that students would not be in masks for eight hours straight. The district would provide mask breaks and outdoor time.
He reiterated that the universal masking policy was a mandate from the governor, and that district not in compliance with the mandate could lose accreditation from the Illinois State Board of Education. A loss of accreditation would render district diplomas meaningless and could cost state funding. Litchfield currently received $6.4 million each year in state funding.
In addition, the district’s insurance carrier will not cover liability for the district if they are not in compliance with the mandate.
Each building administrator provided highlights of the plan for different grade levels. Although temperature checks will not be done daily in the morning, the district will still promote hand washing and hand sanitizer.
At the elementary level, principals Adam Favre and Jeremy Heigert noted students would eat lunch in their classrooms. Hires said he had a complaint from a teacher that he or she lost out on prep time because of lunch supervision in the classroom. Favre said that support staff was asked to cover lunch duty in the classrooms so teachers would have a lunch break as well. Hires clarified that it was a loss of prep time in their own classroom that was the problem. Favre said he hadn’t heard any complaints, but would look into prep time for teachers.
Dr. Fuerstenau told the board the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) was once again providing free breakfast and lunch for all students in the district.
At the high school and middle school level, students will be allowed to dress for physical education classes. Cain asked if the district had extra masks for students if some got wet during PE, and high school Principal Juletta Ellis said they always have lots of extra masks.
Hires said he’s had several bus drivers reach out to him about policing of mask-wearing on buses. He added that he felt like bus aides were needed to enforce that, not bus drivers, who needed to be watching the road.
After the presentation, the meeting was opened up to public comment, with parents Tobi Martin and Jim Odle requesting to speak.
Martin said that last year, her four children were home schooled, although some have IEPs (individualized education plans). She felt the students deserved to be back in school.
“I already told my kids they do not have to follow the mask mandate because it’s not in the policy manual,” Martin told the board. “Children need to be exposed to germs.”
Odle said one of his sons was very disappointed by the governor’s mask mandate.
“You guys have to start thinking about this,” Odle told the board. “You have to start looking at this. We just spent 48 minutes going over something that’s never going to happen. A lot of this stuff is unprecedented and unfair. And our kids are suffering.”
Another audience member asked if the state board of education accounts for transmission rates in local communities. Dr. Fuerstenau said all their guidance comes from the state board and the department of public health.
“We are off to a whole lot better start than where we were last year,” said Dr. Fuerstenau. “Also, we are bringing kids back to school five days a week.”
Abel also reminded the board that the plan could be changed and adjusted as needed throughout the school year.
In opening board discussion, board member Mike Fleming said he’d gotten lots of public input about the masks and appreciated the engagement from the community. He added that although he didn’t necessarily agree with mandates, he felt the district had no choice but to follow the universal masking.
Hires said he wished the board would table the motion and approach other districts in Montgomery County (Hillsboro, Panhandle and Nokomis) about grouping together to oppose the mandate.
“This is bigger than just Litchfield,” he said. “We could get together with the other boards and rise up for the people. The majority don’t want masks.”
Hires said he felt that teachers were weaponizing masks against students in some cases. Abel asked why he didn’t bring it to the administration before, and Hires said he only learned of it that day. Abel encouraged parents to bring issues to the teachers and administrators when issues arise so the district can be aware of them.
Hires also asked about repercussions for students who don’t wear masks. Dr. Fuerstenau said that any student not wishing to wear a mask may choose home schooling. However, the district will not provide remote learning as an option this year. Parents will be required for the education of their students in a home school environment.
“You need to give our teachers and administrators some credit,” said Dr. Fuerstenau. “They’re not going to throw a student out of school if his or her mask comes off. We have tremendous professionals in our district. We are in the business of working with kids, and we are trying to keep them in school.”
“It’s so important that we get this right,” Hires said. “What about kids with IEPs?”
Abel said that her daughter had speech last year, and the district used clear masks, which were very effective. She was pleased with the provision of the district. Curriculum Coordinator Jennifer Thompson said that although total IEP minutes last year were adjusted because of the shortened school days, all students with an IEP plan received all their service minutes, whether remote learning or in person.
Hires asked if the district would address communication problems with the building secretaries and nurses providing different guidance to parents. Dr. Fuerstenau had high praise for all district staff working through the unusual year last year, but said they would work on communication efforts.
Cain said she felt it was important to have kids in school, and if masks were the mandate, then they should follow it.
Abel said she felt the board was underestimating the kids’ ability to adapt.
“I know there were struggles last year, but our kiddos did well. Our kids are very capable.”
Board member Mark Bloome said he agreed with the district’s re-opening plan and felt the staff and students were up to the challenge.
“We have to give it time,” he said. “If we do these things we have a fighting chance of keeping kids in school.”
Board member David Belusko said he was not in favor of universal masking and felt each household should be able to decide for themselves.
“This is our freedoms,” he said. “Some items are great in this opening plan. But it comes down to that I can’t vote for something that takes rights from parents.”
The meeting agenda did not include a closed session to discuss personnel, rather just approval of a few personnel items. Hires made the request to go into closed session to discuss personnel matters. He made the motion, seconded by Belusko, but it failed 2-4 to enter closed session.
Before adjourning, the board approved several personnel matters. Hires voted present for each item, except the first one. The board approved family maternity leave for high school secretary Brittany Ronco.
Belusko voted against accepting the resignation of clerical aide Katie Steinbach.
The board approved the hire of Kimberly Weller as an instructional tutor at Russell School and the voluntary transfer of Josh Hughes from middle school social studies teacher to high school social sciences teacher. They also approved the hiring of Nick Gerndt as middle school social studies teacher and high school head boys basketball coach.
In a final motion, the board approved the resignation of elementary special education teacher Maggie Gunn.
The meeting adjourned at 7:46 p.m., after nearly two hours of discussion. Anyone interested may watch the meeting in its entirety on the district’s YouTube channel.
Board members will have their regular monthly meeting on Tuesday evening, Aug. 17, beginning at 6 p.m. in the Radius Room at Litchfield High School.