Orion schools to require masks

Mindy Carls
Notice: Face Mask required

Orion school board members woke up Wednesday, Aug. 4, knowing they would have to vote on a mask policy in the evening.

But they were upstaged by no one less than the governor. J.B. Pritzker announced at 2:30 p.m. that students, teachers and staff from pre-K through 12th grade, in all public and private schools, would have to wear masks regardless of vaccination status.

Before the special board meeting began at 6 p.m., Blessman conferred with attorneys who confirmed the governor was mandating masks.

To protect the health of students and staff, Orion Superintendent Joe Blessman’s plan would have encouraged but not required unvaccinated individuals from age 2 on up to wear masks while indoors. No one would have been required to mask up outdoors. Only bus riders would have had to wear masks.

The schools would have monitored COVID-19 cases to see if masks should be mandated.

After the meeting, Blessman posted the district’s policy at https://www.orionschools.us/announcements/back_to_school_plan.

“The new measure is part of the state's ongoing effort to combat a new surge as the Delta variant rapidly spreads,” Blessman wrote. Pritzker’s mask mandate includes “all indoor extracurricular activities and sports. In line with the CDC guidance, masks are not required for activities outdoors where transmission risks and rates are lower.”

Pritzker’s mandate requires masks for youth sports and activities held indoors, Blessman said.

Orion schools will encourage more hand washing, sanitizing common surfaces and desks daily, fogging classrooms and buses with disinfectants, and having hand sanitizer available in every classroom.

David Harris, who has lived in Orion 43 years, told the board, “As a parent and grandparent we expect the schools to keep them safe and send them back home to us — hopefully — healthy. Masks may be inconvenient, but they are best to keep kids safe.”

Other parents supported leaving the use of masks up to local school boards, which they said should allow parents to make the decisions about putting masks on their children.

“Our board makes the best decisions on behalf of our children and our schools,” said Orion resident Jennifer Johnson, who has had children in Orion schools for 18 years and counting. “This is our parental right to determine what is right for our children. Give us the choice.”

Orion resident Amy Kayser urged parents to get in touch with state legislators.

“What would happen if we told the governor, ‘We’re not doing what you said?’” Kayser said.

Blessman said the sudden rules changes were frustrating but the district has to follow the governor’s order. If the schools do not, the Illinois School Board of Education could suspend school funding and hold individual school board members liable. The Orion schools could lose accreditation, and Blessman could lose his superintendent’s license.

Opponents of Pritzker’s COVID-19 restrictions took him to court 36 times and lost all of them, the superintendent said.

“The main thing is getting kids back to school,” Blessman said. “Last year, if we said we can have sports if you wear masks, we’d have been okay with that.”

School board member Aaron Kayser said the mandate was necessary because not enough people were following CDC guidelines.

Blessman said parents who disagree with the Illinois mask mandate for all public and private schools have the option of sending their children to Iowa.

Homeschooling also is an option.

The board tabled a vote on the school reopening plan until its regular meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 18.

Orion students are returning to classrooms for five days a week, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.