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Government, Politics & Issues

Madison County Backs Optional Masks At Schools Without Input From Health Advisory Board

 A woman holds up an anti-vaccine sign at a rally before the Madison County Board meeting Wednesday night. The County Board of Health, which includes the same members as the county board, passed a resolution that "strongly encourages" all school districts in the county to let parents decide if their children wear a mask at school.
Kavahn Mansouri
Belleville News-Democrat
A woman holds up an anti-vaccine sign at a rally before the Madison County Board meeting Wednesday night. The County Board of Health, which includes the same members as the county board, passed a resolution that "strongly encourages" all school districts in the county to let parents decide if their children wear a mask at school.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

EDWARDSVILLE — The Madison County Board of Health passed a resolution Wednesday night “strongly encouraging” school districts to adopt mask-optional policies for all students this fall, regardless of their age or vaccination status against COVID-19.

But the chairperson of the board of health’s advisory committee, Dr. Raymond Weber, said the board of health did not consult him about the resolution.

“Our job is to see that the issue of COVID is handled,” he said after the resolution passed. “I’m afraid the resolution is not productive in doing that.”

The resolution is non-binding, but State’s Attorney Tom Haine told the board that it provided a sort of “moral authority” for school districts.

Speak for Students, a parents group advocating against mask mandates in Madison County schools, organized a rally before the special county board meeting in Edwardsville. The group has helped organize similar rallies at various school board meetings over the last month.

Some of the attendees promoted misinformation or conspiracy theories about COVID and the vaccine. One person claimed that there are 45,000 vaccine-related deaths being covered up by the federal government.

But Speak for Students Megan Cunningham said she and her husband, Ryan Cunningham, co-founders of the group, are not against masks or vaccines in all situations. Both have received the COVID vaccine, and she said they understand that kids or families facing certain health risks will continue to mask.

“At this point in time, we’re not going to eradicate COVID,” Megan Cunningham said during the rally. “We have to live with it, and that means some of us are at a higher risk.”

Debate is mostly along party lines

Around 60 people, including children, showed up for the rally against masks, and were largely greeted with encouragement by passing drivers.

Four people spoke before the board of health discussed the resolution. At least three of them — including Bond County attorney Tom DeVore, who represented more than 100 clients in 30 counties in legal battles against the stay-at-home executive orders in Illinois during the pandemic — have spoken at school board meetings in Collinsville and Edwardsville.

The resolution passed 18-10, mostly along party lines, with Republicans favoring the resolution. Only Robert Pollard, a Democrat from East Alton, and Heather Mueller-Jones, a Republican from Maryville, crossed over.

County Board Chairman Kurt Prenzler and board member Nick Petrillo were absent.

Mueller-Jones argued that getting kids into the classroom full-time and in person should be the board’s top priority and she’d favor wearing masks if that’s what it takes to meet that goal.

“We should be supporting those people and not making their job harder, just because we want to take some political stance or look good or do some cockamamie advisory resolution that doesn’t do a hill of beans to help anyone,” Mueller-Jones said. “This board should be helping people in Madison County.”

Valerie Doucleff, a Republican from Godfrey who works at Alton Unit District 11 as a fifth-grade teacher, said she could see the negative effects masks were having on children in the classroom.

“These kids are affected by them — socially, academically,” she said. “We have put a wall in front of their faces. They are suffering. When they have free time to socialize, they don’t even talk to each other anymore.”

Several committee members, including Jamie Goggin, a Republican from Edwardsville, complained about the number of non-binding resolutions the board has passed.

“Every one of them stinks,” Goggin said. “It’s just pandering and divisiveness to throw us in the middle of an argument to make someone look good, and I don’t appreciate it, to be put in this position to vote on something we really have no control over.”

Goggin voted in favor of the resolution Wednesday.

Health advisory board not consulted

Ultimately, school districts are responsible for making their own decisions about masking policies within their buildings, as the board of health’s resolution notes. The board of health has a role in advising school districts in matters of public health, and are “strongly encouraging” all school districts within the county to let families decide whether or not their students wear masks in school.

The board of health, though, is not the same as the Madison County Health Department.

In other Illinois counties, including the six that border Madison County, the president or chairman of the county board appoints members to the board of health. There are stipulations as to who can be appointed: there must be a physician, a nurse and a dentist, and the other members are chosen for their “special fitness” for membership on the board.

In Madison County, however, the elected county board doubles as the board of health. They are advised, however, by a 10-person advisory committee, which includes doctors, dentists, nurses and others with knowledge of public health issues.

Weber, a family medicine specialist and the advisory panel’s chairman, said he was not consulted for his opinion on the resolution. Speaking for himself and not the committee, Weber said he would have advised against it.

The Madison County Health Department is obliged to follow the guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Illinois Department of Public Health, director of community health Amy Yeager said before Wednesday’s vote. She said the health department had no further comment on the board of health resolution.

The latest CDC and IDPH guidance for school reopenings gives districts much more flexibility in creating their plans for the fall, while still emphasizing the need to layer mitigation measures, including masks, social distancing, testing and vaccinations.

CDC says policy should follow risk

The CDC holds that fully vaccinated individuals, for the most part, do not need to wear masks in most situations, and that those who have not been vaccinated should. Even school districts in the metro-east that haven’t explicitly announced mask optional policies, though they are encouraging staff and students who haven’t had the COVID vaccine to wear masks, have stated plainly that they don’t plan to check vaccination records for enforcement.

Yeager said the health department had no comment on that interpretation of the guidance other than that the department meets regularly with school districts to provide data and guidance.

The federal guidance recommends making decisions about increasing or rolling back safety mitigations based on local COVID conditions. Madison County is one of 14 counties in the state flagged with warning signs of increased COVID-19 risk. St. Clair and Monroe counties are also on the list.

The seven-day rolling COVID test positivity in Madison County has been above 8% since July 10; before the recent increase, the county has not been above 8% since the end of January. Currently, the state’s positivity rate is 2.6%.

IDPH reports that 43% of Madison County residents are fully vaccinated.

Megan Valley is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

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