Superintendents from public school districts across the state joined forces Wednesday in Springfield to oppose Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s school mask mandate after dozens of districts were put on probation this week for refusing to comply.

Despite Illinois State Board of Education Superintendent Carmen Ayala declaring that officials would not discuss the state’s school mask mandate at Wednesday’s board meeting, several state educators and parents stepped up to express their concerns that the governor’s executive order is distracting educators and polarizing communities.

Steve Lucie, a former longtime school board member with Warsaw Community Unit School District 316 — one of roughly 30 public school districts on probation for defying the mandate — pleaded with the board to allow local communities to make COVID-19 related decisions.

“My daughter doesn’t know if she’ll come back to Illinois to teach, because of what we’re doing, and the policies that have been made,” said Lucie, who said his daughter is majoring in education at a college in Iowa.

“I’m asking you to do the right thing here for the people in the community. … They’re not just going to sit and roll over and take that,” said Lucie, a fifth generation farmer in the rural community nearly 300 miles southwest of Chicago.

The only school in the Chicago area that was disciplined by the state was Elmhurst private school Timothy Christian Schools, which had its status restored after agreeing to comply. Several public school districts put on probation have told the state they will comply with the recommendation, and once that is verified, they will be removed from the list, ISBE spokeswoman Jackie Matthews said Wednesday.

“We will continue to act swiftly with both nonpublic and public schools that have confirmed they are not implementing universal indoor masking as required by (the executive order),” Matthews said.

She said last week the board is reaching out to each district placed on probation to “schedule a conference to discuss compliance,” and the school districts will be required to submit a corrective plan to the regional superintendent of schools and Ayala within 60 days.

Kyle Thompson, regional superintendent of the Charleston-based Regional Office of Education #11, which covers several counties including Clark, Edgar and Shelby, said in a Wednesday email that he is seeing “districts all over the map — followed, haven’t followed, probation, not yet on probation.”

“I know a handful received emails (from ISBE) requesting a response within 24 hours, while others have yet to receive that email,” Thompson said. “To be honest, I am not sure how ISBE is tracking it so fast.”

Curt Nettles, superintendent of Clinton Community Unit School District 15, said many parents in the community had asked if students could be mask optional.

Nettles said with the exception of a two-week shutdown, District 115, located about 160 miles southwest of Chicago, “was very fortunate to have schools open five days a week during the last school year.”

The district’s success in bringing students back into the classroom when many districts across Illinois remained fully remote was the result of officials closely watching the local COVID-19 metrics, and following the guidance of the county health department, he said.

“We should be able to lessen restrictions based on local factors,” said Nettles, adding that differences in opinions in the community regarding the state’s school mask mandate have “pitted neighbors and friends against each other.”

Downstate Republican Darren Bailey — who announced his bid for governor earlier this year — told board members Pritzker’s mandate is legally unenforceable, presenting them with a petition with the signatures of 45,000 parents pushing for the state to allow local school districts to become mask optional.

“The governor lacks the authority to mandate this. … Stop making empty threats,” said Bailey, who was removed from a legislative session in May 2020 after refusing to wear a mask.

In a statement she delivered prior to the more than 2½ hours of heated testimony from school district leaders and parents, Ayala was adamant the school mask mandate was nonnegotiable.

“Before we begin, I want to clarify for everyone attending and listening in that there are no items related to masking or to school district recognition on the agenda today,” Ayala said.

“Right now, across the country, and especially in states with no mitigations in place, we’re seeing pediatric ICUs at capacity. We’re seeing hospitals having to turn away cancer patients and heart attack victims because they have no beds available. On Saturday, an eighth-grade girl in Mississippi died due to complications from COVID,” Ayala said.

Arriving just weeks before the start of the 2021-22 school year, the school mask mandate for Illinois students in preschool through high school, which is based on the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation, has ignited a firestorm of protests from some parents. Many school boards have been forced to revise COVID-19 guidance they approved earlier this summer, before the surge of the delta variant and rising infection rates across the U.S.

School districts were also forced to quickly craft enforcement policies and consequences for students who refuse to comply with the mandate, with one suburban school district issuing a one-day suspension last week to a freshman who declined to don a mask on the first day of school.

While some parents have fiercely protested the mask mandate, Ayala said she is getting emails every day from “parents in Illinois wondering if it’s safe to send their child with asthma or diabetes to school.”

“The answer is yes. Because — and only because — Illinois has the safety measures in place to protect students, educators, and the community around them,” Ayala said.

“Masking works. It’s simple, easy and effective,” she said. “And it works best when everyone in the school building wears a mask.”

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