School district and regional superintendents from around Illinois have indicated that their relationship with the Illinois State Board of Education has improved after a meeting with State Superintendent Carmen Ayala.
Tensions between some local school administrators and Illinois education officials have been high for much of the school year. Over the summer, 160 signed a petition advocating for local control when, just two months before the school year started, the Illinois State Board of Education still had not released COVID-19 guidance for schools.
Ultimately, Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued an executive order requiring masks be worn in schools.
The state board meets monthly and superintendents have spoken at each, asking that decisions regarding the need for safety mitigations be left to them.
On Thursday, many commended Ayala for the conversation they had earlier this month about concerns over local control, specifically for COVID-19 safety mitigations, like masks, contact tracing and student quarantines and isolations.
"We've gone from not feeling like we were being heard to feeling more like a partnership," said Clinton CUSD 15 Superintendent Curt Nettles.
Many of the decisions that frustrated local control advocates — specifically universal mask mandates — were not decisions made by Ayala or the Illinois State Board of Education, but Pritzker and the Illinois Department of Public Health.
But, while the administrators who spoke indicated they felt their relationship with Ayala and the board had improved with the meeting, they also noted that tensions about mask requirements and other COVID mitigations were beginning to rise again among families, staff, and within local school boards.
"There's a growing divide in our communities," Mount Pulaski CUSD 23 Superintendent Fred Lamkey said. "Most superintendents have done nothing but try to hold their community together."
Parents from 145 Illinois school districts have filed a lawsuit against their districts, Pritzker, Ayala and Illinois state health department Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike over mask mandates and isolations when students are identified as a close contact of someone with COVID.
Ayala told the administrators that she spoke to Ezike on Wednesday night and that further conversation about local control could be happening soon.
"We had a conversation about what's happening in the field and in our schools and communities, and I think I'm very close to coordinating a time for (Ezike) to address superintendents and regional superintendents," she said.
While superintendents indicated a few different issues they wanted to be addressed locally, the mask mandate has been a point of particularly intense contention around the state.
Anti-masking parent groups have demonstrated at school board meetings, and some have continued to speak at every local meeting about the requirement, now three months into the school year.
Pritzker's August executive order required everyone to wear a mask, regardless of vaccination status. At the time, only children 12 years of age and up were eligible. The COVID-19 vaccine is now approved for everyone five years of age and older, which means nearly all PK-12 students are eligible.
"We do hear you. We know how difficult this is — not personally — but we can see," Illinois State Board of Education Chairman Darren Reisberg said.