(The Center Square) – The Illinois State Board of Education could put more school districts across the state on probation just as the agency has put eight schools on notice for failure to comply with the state's COVID-19 policies.
The school board president of one district listed on probation status says the state has not been transparent about the process.
ISBE recently filed emergency rules to enforce Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s continued COVID-19 mask mandate for schools, bringing every district to square one. That’s after ISBE lost in court with judges saying they had to have similar due process for impacting the recognition status of schools, both public and private.
ISBE school recognition status comes with access to state funds and whether the state school board will recognize diplomas or allow participation in organized sporting events in tandem with the Illinois High School Association.
On Friday, ISBE listed eight schools on probation.
Seven were private schools: St. Johns Lutheran Parochial School in Coles County, St. James Lutheran schools in Adams County, Vandalia Christian Academy in Fayette County, Christian Liberty Academy and Valeo Academy in Cook County, Kankakee Trinity Academy in Kankakee County, and Visionway Christian School in Christian County.
Hutsonville Community Unit School District 1 in Crawford County is the only public school on probation.
“Due to the district’s continued failure to demonstrate compliance with the universal indoor masking requirements, the State Superintendent has determined that the recognition status of your district is hereby changed to On Probation, effective immediately,” a letter ISBE sent to Hutsonville on Friday said.
Hutsonville School Board President Chad Weaver told The Center Square they’ve had their mask-recommended policy in place all school year with few students wearing masks. He said COVID-19 cases have been on par with other districts.
“We were very consistent if not a little better than some of our comparable school districts in our area,” Weaver said.
Hutsonville wanted to have a recent conference about their status made public.
“They refused to allow press to participate in it, they refused to allow us to make a record of it, it was a very not-transparent meeting on behalf of ISBE in spite of us trying to make it that way,” Weaver said.
ISBE didn’t immediately respond.
In the letter to Hutsonville, ISBE said the district can either appeal or submit a plan for corrective action by Nov. 30.
Weaver said the district requires masks on school buses, capturing federal dollars tied to such policies. And, the district is ready to make masks mandated if local conditions call for it. But, state dollars could be at stake for not complying with ISBE’s mandate.
“Basically the new set of rules that ISBE put out is at least a kangaroo court version of due process,” Weaver said.
Legal bills have been minimal, Weaver said, but some in the public have offered to cover the costs to keep masks optional.
“There was a community member who stood up and said ‘I’ll give $2,500 right now to assist in this and go forward with it,’ ” Weaver said.
More school districts around the state are planning to go, or have gone, masks optional, preparing for legal battles with ISBE.
In Fayette County, Vandalia Christan Academy is already on probation. Vandalia Community Unit School District 203 last week approved to go mask optional starting Dec. 3.
St. Elmo Community Unit School District decided on such a policy change Thursday that went into effect Monday.
ISBE officials previously said they will investigate all school districts that do not comply with the governor’s mandate.