The union representing 330 Evanston Township High School teachers and other professionals such as counselors and librarians is taking issue with how, why, and when District 202 is lifting the COVID-19 school mask mandate.

On Tuesday afternoon, Superintendent Eric Witherspoon held a staff webinar, in which he stated that recent court and legislative actions overturned Governor J.B. Pritzker’s indoor school masking requirement for students and staff.

Because of those decisions, Witherspoon said there is currently “no state rule to enforce. Enforcement has been ripped away from us for now.”

The superintendent said ETHS will strongly recommend that students and staff wear masks, but can no longer mandate it.

However, Rick Cardis, president of the Teachers Council, said it was “insulting to teachers” that the administration did not consult with them before making a decision.

Cardis said a membership survey showed 75% in favor of a continued mask mandate.

He also disagreed that ETHS has no choice but to drop the requirement. Cardis said the appeals court ruling blocking the mandate gave indvidual school districts the right to implement mask rules on their own.

Cardis added that “given the shaky legal interpretation that Dr. Witherspoon has,” and the fact that state health agencies have not come out against masking, “there’s no need” to modify the policy now, particularly with the case likely headed to the Illinois Supreme Court.

The union leader noted that “this is a change in working conditions, and we have the right to impact bargaining” on the question.

Besides emotions among the staff, Cardis said “kids will be confused and worried and anxious” about a change coming so quickly.

Assistant Superintendent Pete Bavis did send an email to teachers, saying that mask-wearing in schools has still not been settled, and is “very much in flux.”

He provided sample language which teachers might use in class, namely, “ETHS strongly encourages everyone to wear a mask properly, both fully vaccinated and unvaccinated. The best way to protect yourself is to continue to wear a mask properly.”

Bavis also suggested that “to increase the comfort of staff and students,” teachers might want to alter instructional plans so students can concentrate more on individual work, although that is not a requirement.

He also stated that “Every attempt must be made to ensure that students are not singled out based on their wearing or not wearing a mask.”

There is also some confusion over exactly when the mask mandate will be lifted.

Witherspoon indicated during his webinar Tuesday that the mandate was gone, because there is no longer a state rule on the books to enforce.

But later in the afternoon, District 202 issued a website message saying the requirement remains until Monday, Feb. 28.

Confusion is understandable, as it’s hard to enforce a rule if, as per the superintendent, it no longer exists.

The discrepancy puts teachers and students in a bind for Wednesday. Are masks required that day or not?

Says union president Cardis, “This was not well thought out.”

The issue is moot on Thursday and Friday. There are no classes then as part of the school calendar.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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