ECC decides to return to a mask mandate

Dominic Di Palermo and Maya Liquigan

ECC masks mandates are now back in effect as of Feb. 22. (Dominic Di Palermo )

For 12 days, Elgin Community College had planned to implement a mask optional policy for its campus. On Tuesday, Feb. 22, ECC announced the school would keep its current mask mandate in place.  

In the backdrop of falling COVID-19 hospitalization numbers due to the omicron variant and a court ruling about mask mandates in the state, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Feb. 9 announced the state-wide indoor mask mandate would be lifted on Feb. 28. In response to the governor’s announcement, Elgin Community College sent an announcement on Thursday, Feb. 10, lifting the mask mandate on campus.  

“As such, ECC’s requirement of wearing masks while indoors will no longer be in effect as of February 28, 2022,” the Feb. 10 ECC announcement read. “Nonetheless, ECC strongly recommends wearing masks as an additional safety measure, whether required or not. Mask dispensing stations are located throughout campus and will continue to be made available.”

On Tuesday, Feb. 22, 12 days after announcing the new policy and six days before it was set to going into effect, the school said the mask mandate would remain on campus.

“Gov. J.B. Pritzker recently expressed that he would be lifting the state’s indoor mask mandate, which includes community colleges, on February 28, 2022,” the Feb. 22 ECC announcement read.  “As a result, Elgin Community College announced that it would follow the state accordingly and would lift the mask mandate at ECC on that date.  However, as we listened to safety concerns expressed by students and employees, internal discussions took place to explore all avenues.  Additionally, the Elgin Community College Faculty Association (ECCFA) requested that the college continue to enforce the mask mandate for the safety of its members.  Upon completion of our negotiations, we reached an agreement to continue enforcing the mask mandate indoors on the ECC campus through the end of the spring semester.”

Kim Tarver, president of ECCFA and professor of physical therapist assistant, said that she feels the language of the school’s Feb. 22 announcement misrepresented ECCFA’s position.

“ECCFA did not demand that we return to masks,” Tarver told the Observer on Feb. 24. “In fact, we consulted with our members and we learned that we are very diverse in our thoughts about masks. And we recognize we have to represent all of those perspectives and get the best deal that we can for everyone and safety is paramount for our faculty and for our students we share the same space.

“In my tenure as president, I’m very proud of the relationship that we have,” Tarver said. “Of course, we’ll disagree but we’re respectful, civil, it’s collegial and I would say there’s a lot of caring and compassion that goes both ways. But this announcement is not reflective of that. That’s my biggest concern. There’s an opportunity to set that record straight and restore the relationship and make sure that moving forward we’re all on the same page.” 

According to Tarver, the school did not ask ECCFA to amend any safety protocols, including masking policy, as is required by the union’s agreement– called a Memorandum of Agreement–  with the school. (The most current Memorandum of Agreement, which outlines various safety and other policies at the school during the pandemic, was approved in September 2021.)

The Memorandum of Agreement states in item 20, “All safety protocols as provided by applicable federal, state and local governing entities, including but not limited to the Center for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), State of Illinois Governor Executive Orders and the Kane County Health Department (Governing Entities), shall be followed. If there is a setback of the pandemic whereby the college is unable to comply with the above safety protocols, either party may request to discuss and negotiate an amendment to this MOA.”

According to Tarver, after ECC announced the plan for a mask optional policy, ECCFA voiced its objection to the new policy, explaining that in their view, this was violation of the Memorandum of Agreement.

On Feb. 22, the school announced a return to the mask mandate.

Stephen Stassen, ECC emergency management specialist, explained in an email to the Observer what steps were taken to decide to keep the mask mandate.

“ECC uses National Incident Management System (NIMS) for emergencies and disasters,” Stassen said. “Using this system, representatives from around the college come together in the Campus Emergency Operations Center (CEOC). This group works together to address concerns and the impacts of an incident. However, some potential impacts require policy directions for actions to be taken. A group mostly made up of the college president and the cabinet makes decisions of the policies.”

Stassen further explained that ECC decision makers considers multiple aspects when making a decision, including the legal authority of the college, the effects on student learning, and the impacts for on-campus members. The CEOC communicates with groups such as Kane County Public Health and Kane County Emergency Management. All of these groups and factors are weighed to decide any official announcement regarding the safety of ECC, according to Stassen.

With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offering updated guidance for safety measures on Feb. 25, safety policies at ECC could still change this semester.