When the Illinois school mask mandate came down in summer of 2021, the small public school district in rural Hutsonville found itself between a rock and hard place, again.
Back at the beginning of the 2020 school year, though the supermajority of parents didn’t quite like the mask mandate, Hutsonville district was forced to comply after losing a legal fight brought upon them by Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D).
That year, among some 280 students at the district’s two schools, younger kids had difficulty learning to pronounce new words or to share with others, while older kids appeared to be quiet, lacking motivation to learn, and even depressed, according to school staff.
Three high school students attempted suicide and were hospitalized—the highest number of suicide attempts the district ever had in 37 years.
Some students got COVID-19. They all recovered, and none were hospitalized.
Throughout the summer, the mixed results of the one-year mask experiment were examined at one school board meeting after another. One mother, whose teenage child had attempted suicide, told the board, “If my child had no mask on, teachers or friends might find out he was not doing okay.”
This time, a higher percentage of parents, 93 percent, were against the mask mandate, according to a poll.
Right before the 2021 school year started, Hutsonville’s seven elected school board members voted 7–0, twice, to do what they thought was best for their students. That was, to not comply with the mask mandate.
Chad Weaver, president of the school board, told The Epoch Times, “This is about local control. Let us make our decisions based on what’s going on in our school district.”
A Hutsonville native, Weaver grew up attending the school district. His two older children also graduated from the same district; his two younger children are currently students.
In Weaver’s five years on the school board, he has seen a growing number of mandates come from the state legislature and the executive branch, ever eroding his team’s ability to govern its own affairs.
A notable mandate was the recent bill that required sex education, including different gender identities, for kindergarteners and up, which Weaver feared would change the moral fabric of his small farming town.
“The state is so diverse. What happens in the little town of Hutsonville of 650 people is substantially different from a big city like Chicago.
“We want to protect our local control, and our people have had enough of government overstepping its bounds,” Weaver said.
Hutsonville was joined by about 60 public school districts and private schools in not requiring masks at schools. Illinois has about 850 public school districts.
State Superintendent of Education Carmen Ayala said Gov. Pritzker’s mask mandate had the force of law.
Ayala said in a letter to district superintendents that she understood the pressure from the community, but noncompliance was not an option; no public school district should risk even one child’s life over masks.
Eight of the nine members on the State Education Board, including Ayala, were appointed to a four-year term by Pritzker. One was appointed by former governor Bruce Rauner and reappointed by Pritzker in 2019.
If they insisted on noncompliance, Ayala said, the state education board would put schools on probation. After that, they had 60 days to comply—or be unrecognized by the state and lose funding, plus sports participation rights.
On Aug. 19, Hutsonville, along with about 40 other public school districts, was put on probation.
Hutsonville Superintendent Julie Kraemer told The Epoch Times, “There was really no due process. We were just taken straight to probation. Nobody has ever called me to ask me, ‘Hey, what is going on in your district? What are your metrics?’”
In Kraemer’s 23 years at Hutsonville, this was the first time the district was put on probation.
Tensions ran high at the State Education Board’s August meeting. Many district superintendents, including some that had complied with the mask mandate, lamented how the mandate had driven wedges between schools and parents.
Kyle Thompson, superintendent of a 22,000-student school district in central Illinois, said school board members and parents in his district had gone to war over the mask mandate.
“These hard feelings will linger and affect our quality of education for years to come. The tension is unbearable,” Thompson said. “Too often, our politicians at the state capital don’t realize the cost of their decisions.”
If the schools were left to make their own choices, Thompson said, they would be held accountable by the families they served.
“If they land on the wrong side of a decision, without divisive and polarizing outside influence, they are able to carefully work together to resolve it,” he said.
Tonya Evans, superintendent of a 1,000-student school district in central Illinois, said many parents had threatened to sue her district over the mask mandate.
Evans was considering getting police on campus for fear of unrest.
In Hutsonville, Kraemer, as well as her board, was determined to abide by the will of the parents.
Kraemer attended Hutsonville district as a kid. In 1998, she came back to teach and she became assistant principal, principal, and then superintendent. She knows all the students and their families.
“This community is a family, and the family has elected seven board members to represent them,” Kraemer said.
As the new school year began, the Hutsonville High School hallways were full of noise again.
Kids were talking to each other, and everything seemed back to normal, principal Travis Titsworth told The Epoch Times.
Last year, when kids had the masks on, the hallways were quiet. Kids didn’t talk much, they didn’t ask questions in class, and they often just sat there by themselves, Titsworth said.
Scores also improved across the board in high school this year, he said.
High school freshman Ilayan Sheets was happy that this year she didn’t have to wear a mask, that the desk shields were gone, and that the desks were pulled a lot closer.
“You feel a lot more lonely when you wear masks. It’s weird not seeing faces. I was more sad last year than I usually am. I like talking to friends face to face,” Sheets told The Epoch Times.
Sheets also said she could understand teachers’ words better this year. Last year, she had difficulty understanding teachers when they had masks on.
Will Callaway, a high school sophomore, plays basketball almost daily and said it was easier for him to breathe without a mask. His nose and eyes also felt dry a lot of times with a mask on.
Last year, many masked students couldn’t go beyond 15 minutes of exercise; this year, they were able to work out a lot longer, according to physical education teacher Randy Hawkins.
State guidelines recommend at least half an hour of exercise daily for high school students, Hawkins said.
Callaway also said it was great to be able to see friends’ faces.
“Sometimes you thought they were laughing, but at the same time, you were not really sure about it,” he said.
His friend Bryson Dunlap, another sophomore, agreed.
“When someone is happy, it is not just about hearing his laughs, it is also about seeing his face. And that makes you happy too.”
Tracy Seesengood, the school psychologist at Hutsonville district, described the difference between last school year and this year as “night and day.”
“It just got back to normal, and we look like what we did before the pandemic. I think that gives them a sense of security, a sense of hope.
“You know, they were hopeless for a while—it was just like, ‘Are we ever going to have our life back again?’ It was very scary for kids,” Seesengood told The Epoch Times.
Last year was particularly hard for high school students, who were on an unpredictable journey growing into young adults, she said.
“There was just kind of an overall depressive state. We had fights that we didn’t have before. I had many more kids coming to me talking about wanting to harm themselves,” she said.
Nationwide, emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts among 12 to 17-year-olds jumped 31 percent in 2020, compared to 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This year, Hutsonville also didn’t forcibly send home kids who, based on local health department guidelines, should be quarantined at home (due to reasons such as close contact with a family member who had COVID-19.)
Rather, when a child who should be quarantined showed up at school, the district would simply inform Crawford County Health Department. Then it was left to the health department to enforce the quarantine rule or not.
Last year, a Hutsonville high school student attempted suicide while being quarantined at home.
So far in this school year, Hutsonville had no suicide attempts.
Sports, Court, and Prayer
Wearing a mask makes it hard for you to do sports, but not wearing one could mean losing the participation rights to statewide sports series.
That was the dilemma that Hutsonville district found itself in shortly after the new school year started.
According to Illinois High School Association’s new rule, any public schools on probation for not complying with the mask mandate could not participate in the state series.
That put a lot of pressure on many parents and board members, especially those who had kids practicing and waiting for months to play in the series.
At a special September board meeting, three board members flipped and voted to impose the mask mandate. At 4 to 3, they were just one vote short of moving the needle.
On Sep. 28, Hustonville district filed a lawsuit against Illinois High School Association, asking Crawford County Circuit Court Judge Kimbara Harrell to temporarily permit Hustonville school students to participate in state series.
Judge Harrell denied the request.
Then Hutsonville district filed an appeal at the Fifth District Appellate Court of Illinois, asking Judge Barry Vaughan to overturn Harrell’s decision.
On Oct. 19, a group of seniors walked into superintendent Kraemer’s office. They said they couldn’t wait for the legal resolution; they wanted the district to impose a mask mandate so they wouldn’t miss out on their last series.
“We just want to play,” they told Kraemer.
Now the very kids Kraemer and others had been fighting for were asking for masks. That was one of the hardest moments for her, Kraemer said.
It was a difficult conversation. Kraemer told seniors that she understood; but as a superintendent, she must look after the whole student body, not just the senior class and some 30 graduates.
Though deep in her heart, she had doubts.
She had renewed her Christian faith during the mandate fight and at this difficult moment, she prayed again, asking repeatedly, “Am I doing the right thing?”
That very day, around 11 a.m., Kraemer got a call from her attorney: Judge Vaughan granted Hustonville district’s request. Her seniors could now play the series.
Due Process and a Civil Lesson
By Oct. 26, Hustonville was the only public school district still on probation.
Because of its noncompliance status, Hustonville lost some grant opportunities, such as the federal American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief grant.
Most of the 40 public school districts once on probation had complied under pressure.
Three districts filed a lawsuit in Effingham County Circuit Court and won a temporary restraining order. As a result, the state board was forced to temporarily take the three districts off probation, pending further legal proceedings.
Hutsonville school district was planning on a similar lawsuit when the state education board asked it to wait. The board said it had made a last-minute rule change, and accordingly, Hutsonville was now off probation, pending the new rule.
On Nov. 5, the state education board again found Hutsonville district noncompliant with the mask mandate and said it exhibits “deficiencies that present a health hazard or a danger to students and staff,” according to an official letter.
This time though, the board was not going to put Hutsonville back on probation right away; under the new rule, the board needed to set up a conference to discuss the compliance issue first.
To Kraemer, that was a small win as they were offering some due process, at least formally.
If Hutsonville hadn’t held out as the last public school district on probation, the rule change wouldn’t have come, Kraemer said.
After the Nov. 15 conference, the state education board put Hutsonville back on probation.
Hutsonville district requested a hearing to appeal against the decision, based on the new rule. The hearing was set for Jan. 6.
Kraemer said the district would pick up the legal fight again if they didn’t get a satisfying resolution after walking through the new procedures.
Meanwhile, inside Hutsonville district classrooms, teachers were using the district’s mandate fight to pass on a civics lesson.
“There is no bigger civics lesson than the fight we are in now,” principal Titsworth said.
“If anything ever comes from this fight, I want it to be for these kids to know that at some point in your life, you have to stand up for what you believe in, and you cannot always just say, ‘Okay, I’ll do it.’”
“We’re a little school, but we are putting ourselves out there for them so they know that you have to believe in something, you have to stay strong in your belief, and sometimes you have to stand up for your belief.”