By Charlie Feldman
The Triad School Board may seek help to find a way around Governor JB Pritzker’s August mask mandate, according to its president. But not through the courts.
“I know that we want local control,” Jeff Hewitt said. “It was taken away. We hope we can get it back. I think we’ve got a few ideas that we can work on to see if we can push back a little bit.
“But my personal opinion is that we want to do that short of litigation. I don’t think we want to get tangled up in that. We’ve got other districts that are fighting it already.”
He said this at the Monday, August 23 meeting, held at the Triad High School Cafetorium to accommodate the anti-mask protestors who were there. Before it began, he told those not wearing masks to put them on or they would have to leave. “The choice is yours,” Hewitt said. “It’s a state mandate,” he added. “We didn’t make it.” He then asked the student resource officers to take the non-compliant ones out so business could begin.
This time, public comments were saved until the very end.
Steve Wilder was first.
“I got a kid at the middle school,” he said. “I got a kid at the high school. They’re both excellent students, accomplished athletes. You all never had a problem with them.
“They don’t want to fight. They just want to go to school,” he said. “They don’t want to wear masks but they’ve been taught by you just to put your head down and take it. They didn’t learn that from me.
“It’s not really about this mask,” Wilder said. “It’s not really about the vaccine. It’s not really about anything but it’s about freedom. Your freedom. My freedom. My kids’ freedom.
“I know these aren’t your policies,” he continued. “But you’re enforcing them. And when it comes to tyranny, is it the author of the policy who is to blame? Or is it the enforcer of the policy? I would say there’s some blame to share.
“I heard something the other day that I thought was pretty accurate for today’s times. We all know the story of Anne Frank, right?” he said. “The people that housed her, the people that fed her family were breaking the law. The people that murdered her and her family were the law. What side are you going to be on?”
Another speaker was Eric Sykes, who got the loudest applause. He said the school board failed to represent the parents by not standing strong and using every available resource to push back against the governor’s mask mandate after over 80 percent of the parents in the school district surveyed had already said masks should be optional. “Pritzker has very limited power to enforce this mandate and any action he takes regarding funding or resources would be met with terrible media coverage,” he said.
Hewitt disagreed, citing 24 school districts that took a stand and are now facing repercussions. He called on the school district’s attorney Shane Jones to talk about this. Jones’ law firm’s clients are boards of education.
Jones said only 2 to 2 ½ percent of the districts in Illinois have bothered to take that stand. “And in almost every case, not only has ISBE quickly threatened, written and called those districts but many, if not most, have reversed their position.” He said they even contacted districts that were not on the list.
If the disease were Ebola or the bubonic plague there’s no question that the governor can tell you to stay home or wear a mask, he said. “The problem is that we have a genuine sincere difference of opinion about whether this situation is that bad.
“That’s a policy decision. That is a disagreement on the question of how important that is. There’s no real question about whether or not the governor has the authority, merely whether or not the governor should have exercised it. And that’s very likely the decision the courts are going to reach. That whether or not he should is a political question, not a legal question. Clearly the easy argument to make is that authority does exist.” The mandate is coming from the state level, he said so the “ire and energy” should be directed there.
“Whether or not you personally or politically like the idea, there’s not any question that’s the current state of the law,” Jones said. “Questions about what’s constitutional are to be decided only by the Illinois Supreme Court, not by local boards of education. And the current recommendation of your own private law firm is to recommend that you follow the mandate for the time being.”
Hewitt jotted down a few of the repercussions. If it was something that the board would need to challenge, he would have to go in with eyes wide open.
It was a civil liberty issue, among others, for Ryan Cunningham, co-founder of the Speak for Students organization. He and his family had moved to the Triad District for the school system but moved out of it before the July school board meeting “because of the adversity.”
“The adversity has been extremely challenging on our family,” he said. “We have a kid with special needs and just because I’m subjected to it I can’t afford for my child to be subjected to it.”
There are students unfairly being targeted for their perspective, he said. “The classroom’s not the place for this. It’s not the place to talk about masks.” He said he understood that it was policy, “but don’t impose your opinions and perspectives on our students.”
He played a recording of a crying child. “Those are the cries and screams I have to listen to every single morning to get my son out the door,” he said. “It is affecting everybody differently. And it affects my family.
He said that there were things that the board could do without legal action. They could submit questions, he suggested. “What is the part of the act that you’re mandating that says we have to do this? They’re struggling to answer that question right now. You could ask these questions without having an attorney file an actual formal lawsuit against this. You can ask these tough questions and ask for a response back. That doesn’t cost anything.”
Hewitt thanked him and told the audience that the board had lost local control, wanted it back and had a few ideas to push it back a little.
“We’ve got legislators who are representing us. Maybe we can ask them what they think we can do. If they can give us some answers to get local control back,” he said. “I do know – to be honest with you – I know the Staunton School District just to the north actually took what they called an adaptive pause because of COVID numbers.
“So I just think we’ll have to come in eyes wide open,” he said. “We’re gonna get pushback because I’m sure they’re gonna say there are some real cases of districts that even with the mitigation measures, they’re still facing some issues. But we think, as a board, we’ve got some connections and can actually reach out and see if we can get some advice. I’ve got a few. I’ll be willing to take it and see. I’ll check with the superintendent and make sure I’m not stepping on any toes. But at least maybe we can get some answers and get their perspective on where they think this is headin’. So if you have ideas, any comments from any of the board members right now …”
“I have a question,” said a woman in the audience.
Another voice in the crowd joined in.
“I don’t really have a question and answer session,” Hewitt said. “To be honest with you, we don’t have that.”
The board went into executive session. The meeting was over.
In other action, a copy of next year’s tentative budget will go on display on Friday, August 27 for public review. It will continue to be updated up until the public hearing before the September 27 board meeting. The hearing will be held at 6:30 p.m.; the meeting at 7:30 p.m.