Woodlawn and Hamilton County schools submit COVID safety plans to avoid loss of state funding and accreditation


Woodlawn school district, Hamilton County school district, and 40 other schools  submitted plans to comply with an Illinois State Board of Education mandate, avoiding potential loss of accreditation and state funding. 

The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) implemented a safety mandate in schools to combat COVID-19, and placed at least 60 schools on probation for noncompliance. 

Reasons given for probation included failure to implement full-day indoor mask mandates for in-person classes and social distancing procedures for students.


Failure to comply with the ISBE mandate would have resulted in a loss accreditation, loss of state funding, nonrecognition by colleges and universities and ineligibility in junior high and high school sports postseason events, Woodlaw Superintendent of Schools Eric Helbig said.

Following the ISBE mandate, instituted via Executive Order Number 18 by Governor J.B. Pritzker on Aug. 4, a list of 60 schools were placed on probationary status due to inadequate COVID mitigation policies as of Sept. 3

Travis McCollum, the assistant superintendent of Hamilton County Unit 10 school district, said after meeting with ISBE schools had 60 days to comply with the mandate, or be placed on probation.

“We were never totally against wearing masks,” McCollum said. “They were allowing them to remove their masks when they got to their destination. So we approved our plan, the ISBE came and told us that it still did not meet the mandate. So we had that conversation and changed our plan to comply with the governor’s mandate.”

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in all indoor facilities as well as practicing social distancing of a minimum of six feet and receiving vaccinations whenever possible. 

The resistance to masking and social distancing prescriptions has become a matter of political contention since the beginning of the pandemic.

Proponents of CDC policies argue the regulations reduce the likelihood of COVID transmission among the general population, whereas opponents argue such policies take away the freedom to choose whether they are appropriate for themselves and their family. 


Helbig participated in the meeting between his district and the ISBE.

“Well, the board president and I met virtually with a representative from the ISBE, and they basically explained to us what possibly could happen,” Helbig said. “They determined that, whether it’s today or three or four months from now, the school district was going to have to comply at some point in time. So, they figured why push it off any longer.”

Both school districts serve communities with few alternative schooling options for their students ,and the majority of the funding for these schools comes from the state rather than local property taxes, McCollum said.

“We rely on the state of Illinois for a good chunk of our funding,” Helbig said. “If we were to lose that state funding it would put a heavier burden on our taxpayers.”

McCollum said the school would likely have been able to finish the school year, likely would not have the funding to continue for another year.

“We don’t have multiple units in our county, so I don’t see any other options for us other than private school and homeschooling,” McCollum said. “I’d say state funding is maybe 80% of our funding.

Helbig said the Woodlawn school district applied for relief funding from the state through the ESSER III grant. The grant is a part of the American Rescue Plan Act and is funded by a $122 billion package for schools as supplemental funding to provide adequate educational opportunities while maintaining COVID-19 health and safety guidelines.

Rich Miller, the owner and editor of the Capitol Fax political blog, reached out to the Governor’s office for clarification on masking policies in early July. On July 13, 2021 he published the response given to him by the office via email which said schools should work with their local health departments to come up with prevention strategies and to monitor infections and transmissions.

“The question comes down to liability,” Miller said. “If schools don’t follow the guidance and something bad happens, then the schools could be opened up to lawsuits. It’s the chance you take.”

Helbig said this change of policy was a factor in the backlash within his district against the mandate.

“That did not sit well with my community and some of the board members as well, so they were like, ‘let’s at least make a statement’,” Helbig said.  “I think that is what they were trying to do at the time.” 

Neither Helbig or McCollum believe there are any schools around them that have decided to completely reject the mandates as the potential to lose state funding could lead to closures.

“Several of our neighbors have done the same thing as well,” Helbig said. “Vandalia, Carlyle and a couple of other school districts eventually had to give in to pressure from the state.”

McCollum said the broad impact of being placed on probation is felt not just by the school board as a whole or the students, but also by the individual teachers as well.

“As an educator, each year you get a year of creditable service and you get [Teacher Retirement System] that’s paid,” McCollum said. “That’s all revoked if you’re not compliant with this mandate.”

McCollum said there are a lot of components and people that would be affected by the decision to refuse to follow the ISBE mandate.

“The way it affects our community is that they lose their school,” McCollum said. “You’re in a position where you can’t win and those schools can’t keep their doors open without funding from the state.”

Both districts chose to follow the protocols to remain open, and provide their students with the education and extracurricular activities they desire.

Helbig said, “there were other factors involved in the decision to follow the mandates, but the board said they didn’t want to see any students lose out on extracurricular possibilities.”

McCollum said, as an educator, his beliefs don’t matter in this politicized environment. He said what is best for the students is to provide the opportunities face-to-face instruction brings compared to remote instruction and to allow them to participate safely in extracurricular activities.

“You can argue if masks work, don’t work, that part doesn’t really matter,” McCollum said. “But what masks provide us is the opportunity to get our kids in front of us for a full day of instruction 5 days a week and provide them as many opportunities as we can provide them with.”

Staff reporter William Box can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @William17455137. To stay up to date with all your southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.