By Stephanie Malench
At least 17 parents, school employees, and students spoke during the public comment portion of a special meeting of the Collinsville Unit 10 School Board on February 14. Due to the large crowd and volatile atmosphere during the February 7 special meeting at the Administrative Annex, this meeting was moved to the Collinsville High School Auditorium.
Board President Gary Peccola started the meeting letting the audience know that each speaker would be limited to three minutes and public comment would end after 45 minutes. Speakers from both sides would also have the same opportunity to talk.
Peccola also informed the audience that the board would be voting later in the meeting to approve an updated Return to Learn Plan “strongly recommending masks” effective February 15, the next day.
Speakers from both sides were passionate. Many have spoken in previous meetings, while others were first time speakers who were moved to talk listening to the others.
The first speaker was Natasha Box who has spoken at all of the school board meetings encouraging the board to adopt a mask choice policy. Box is the parent of three of the students that were included in the temporary restraining order.
After reading the definition of due process, she told the board members to listen to the students who were going to speak. Box said “This is not about statistics or whether or not masks work or don’t work. It is about due process and you have infringed on the rights of the students”.
On the side of mandating masks, Jacob Post and Stephanie Biondi, both Collinsville High School teachers with a six-year-old daughter undergoing treatment for cancer that has only been able to attend kindergarten at Renfro for seven full days and 21 partial days this semester for the first time in two years due to having a weakened immune system from the treatments.
Biondi cried as she told the board about a conversation she had with their daughter after she asked her what would happen if she was like other kids that don’t beat cancer. A bigger fear for Biondi, is what would happen to her daughter if she got COVID.
Post, who crated KAHOK Strong 10 years ago, said the program works well in Collinsville because the community is good at coming together; he said it breaks his heart that Collinsville cannot come together for what’s best for the children. He told the board that by going mask optional, they are playing with fire and all children who are immunocompromised, not just his daughter, deserve to be able to go to school safely.
Collinsville High School Senior Clifton came to the podium and said “This is for everyone to stop fighting so much. I’m tired of going to school and watching everyone fight and on social media…everyone is turning against each other”.
Several students cam up and spoke about how they are afraid to go to school because they are bullied and threatened, especially at the middle school, for not wearing masks.
After 50 minutes, the board went into closed session for half an hour to discuss pending litigation before coming back and unanimously voting to approve the updated return to learn plan.
Before the vote was taken, Superintendent Dr. Bard Skertich laid out the facts that were considered in deciding to make the change. Out of nearly 7,000 students and staff there are only 14 positive cases. Eighty-seven percent of the staff is vaccinated. Youth cases are dropping throughout the county.
In a letter to parents released after the meeting, Skertich said that “the current health of our students and staff is the best we have seen since early fall”. He also wrote that “special considerations will be given sto staff and students who have underlying health conditions”. Masks are still required on school buses as public transportation guidelines are governed by Federal Regulations.
After a brief pause to let those who wanted to leave before the old business section of the agenda, the meeting continued. A bid was approved for $576,420 by Millennium Construction to completed the boys locker room renovation at the high school during the summer of 2022. Millennium Construction also won the bid for Phase II of the Webster Elementary School Renovation with a bid of $871,680.
The last agenda item was a discussion on changes to the new Caseyville Elementary School and Dorris Intermediate School expansion designs. Changes include adding 900 square feet to the cafetorium and a brick veneer to Caseyville Elementary for approximately $293,000 and bumping out the outter wall of the new restroom pod on the first and second floors for $31,000.