By Stephanie Malench
The Madison County Board of Health, which is made up of all the members of the County board members but is a separate governing body, held a special meeting before its regular meeting on July 21 to pass a resolution encouraging personal choice relating to masks in schools.
Mike Walters (R-Godfrey) served as the Chairman Pro-tem for Kurt Prenzler, who was unable to lead the meeting. Walters began the meeting with a moment of silence for Todd Warner, a telecommunicator in the Sheriff’s Department, and Sue Dietrich, former Director of the Madison County History Museum, both of whom had passed away since the last board meeting.
Seven people signed up for public comment, but only four showed up. The first speaker, Leslie Koth, whose daughter has autism and already had COVID, spoke in favor of personal choice. Koth’s daughter is a visual learner and reacts to situations based on other’s facial expressions.
Koth also said that the CDC requirement makes vaccinated people look good, and those that have not received the vaccine for whatever reason look bad.
The second speaker, Erika Kohoutek, spoke against the resolution, citing the current vaccination rate is only 43% and the Delta variant is accounting for 83% of the new cases, and asked the board to support masking in schools regardless of vaccination status. Kohoutek said all of the adult members of her family have been vaccinated, but wear masks to protect her nine-year-old who is not old enough to be vaccinated.
Next up was Natasha Box, who’s son goes to an elementary school in Collinsville and has to read lips. Last year, Box had to pull her son out of school to homeschool him because he was unable to understand what was being asked of him. Box cited that 15% of Illinois’ students have IEPs and the children’s hospitals in St. Louis are out of mental health beds to to increases in depression and suicide attempts.
Two speakers forfeited their time to give to Attorney Thomas DeVore who has been educating parents on their rights and what the state guidance does and does not mean. DeVore said the resolution before the board is important because the Board of Health has a role in advising parents.
He also stated that an order of quarantine is a specific document that can only be issued by the parent with a letter from the health department or court order. DeVore also stressed that the resolution is giving personal choice regarding masks in schools, and does not tell anyone what they must do.
With public comment concluded, it was now time for the board members to state their opinions and ask questions about the resolution. At numerous points throughout the discussion, State’s Attorney Tom Haine reminded board members that the resolution is a “nonbinding resolution” and has “no legal mandate”, it is just a recommendation.
Jack Minner (D-Edwardsville) was the first to speak, saying he believes the superintendents throughout the county are capable of making their own decisions and do not need the backing of the board.
Liz Dalton (D-Collinsville) serves on the institutions committee, saying “the regional superintendent met with the committee and said the health board has no authority over school districts and a resolution would have no impact on what the individual school districts do if passed”. Dalton said the board should focus on helping people get vaccinated and stop the spread of the disease.
Stacey Pace (R-Troy) and Bobby Ross (R-St. Jacob) spoke on behalf of Triad parents saying they had been approached by many parents just wanting the option on whether or not their children wear masks and believe in the parents right to choose.
Pace said “masks have been made optional in many other settings in our communities. I don’t believe they should be forced on the least vulnerable age group to wear several hours a day, negatively impacting their social interactions and decreasing their ability to learn”.
Ross reiterated that the last paragraph of the resolution states “to allow families the option of whether to have their students wear masks in school buildings and classrooms for the coming school year”.
Bill Stoutenborough (D-Alton) then spoke about how COVID is a death sentence for students who have asthma or diabetes and that it should be up to the school districts to make exemptions for a child to not wear a mask for learning reasons, not just any parent who doesn’t want their child to wear a mask. He said schools should be a safe place for students and they should not have to worry about catching COVID from someone who chooses not to mask. Stoutenborough then made a motion to table the resolution.
The motion was seconded by Doc Holiday (D-Alton). The motion to table the resolution failed 16 to 12, mostly down party lines.
One of the board members who crossed lines was Heather Mueller-Jones (R-Maryville). Mueller-Jones expressed that she does not agree with advisory resolutions by the board “because it wastes tax payers money” and “nothing is going to happen with this resolution because it is advisory. We should trust our people that are educated in the education system”. She went on to ask how many of the board members spoke to their superintendents.
After everyone who wanted the opportunity to speak had done so, the resolution passed 18-10.