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Illinois appellate court ruling puts school masking in hands of districts

Senn High School students share which colleges they will be attending during English class on the first week back to classrooms on April 23, 2021.

The Illinois Appellate court ruled against the state’s emergency public health orders late Thursday. But, the court ruling left a door open for district to implement their own COVID mitigations.

Max Herman for Chalkbeat

This story has been updated with a statement from Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office.

The Illinois Appellate Court handed the state’s COVID-19 mitigations another blow late Thursday by upholding a circuit court decision to halt emergency public health orders that required masking and teacher vaccinations in schools. 

But the appellate court ruling left open a critical door for districts to establish their own rules by saying “in no way restrains school districts from acting independently from the executive orders or the (Illinois Department of Public Health) in creating provisions addressing COVID-19.”

Jordan Abudayyeh, a spokeswoman for Gov. J.B. Pritzker, said the governor is disappointed in the appellate court’s decision and “concerned for the health of those in schools – particularly vulnerable children and adults – and the ability to continue in-person learning.” 

The governor will work with the state’s attorney general to request an expedited review of the decision from the state Supreme Court, according to Abudayyeh.

The fierce debates over masking, vaccination requirements for staff, and testing in schools have been thrown into the court system in Illinois.

In early February, a judge in central Illinois granted a temporary restraining order in a lawsuit filed by a group of parents and over 170 school districts. The ruling halted emergency public health orders that established masking, vaccination, and testing protocols in schools and caused confusion on the ground as districts scrambled to either reinforce such rules or make them optional. School boards hastily called meetings and there were late night votes.

After the first ruling, Gov. J.B. Pritzker called the decision “out of step,” said masks have been an effective tool to contain COVID spread on campuses, and appealed.

The appellate court dismissed the state department of public health and state board of education’s emergency rules — filed on Sept. 17, 2021 — that implemented mask, vaccine, testing, and quarantine protocols in school buildings because they argued that the language in the temporary restraining order does not restrict districts from making their own safety protocols. 

The court also noted that executive orders were “null and void” because the rules expired Feb. 13. The Joint Committee on Administrative Rules — a bipartisan legislative committee — decided not to renew the emergency orders on Feb. 15. 

Chicago Public Schools, which still requires students to mask and unvaccinated students to quarantine after close contact with positive COVID cases, said in a press release Friday that the district will continue to enforce its COVID-19 mitigations. In an email to parents, CEO Pedro Martinez wrote that the district planned to “continue to follow these proven protocols until such time as our public health partners advise us that restrictions can be safely lifted.”

The Illinois Federation of Teachers, one of the state’s largest teachers unions, said in a press release Friday morning that the appellate court’s decision does not change school districts’ ability to enforce school-based mitigations. 

“We continue to insist that school districts statewide abide by existing collective bargaining agreements that are in place to promote health and safety in schools and to follow our laws around safe schools and workplaces,” said Dan Montgomery, IFT president. “As cases continue to decline, discussions about removing these mitigations must be based on good public health decisions.”

COVID-19 mitigations have been the subject of contention in Illinois throughout the school year. The debate reached a boiling point as parent groups have protested for and against mandates at school board meetings. Republican lawmakers are challenging COVID mandates with legislation. 

The bills filed by Republican legislators target masking and vaccine mandates in schools and would limit decision-making by Pritzker, the state board of education, and the state department of public health.

On Thursday, nine Republican lawmakers were removed from the Illinois House floor for refusing to wear a mask as required by House rules.  

The same day, two parents attended the state board of education’s monthly meeting to raise concerns about the change in masking policy and how that will harm children who have health concerns. They said they were scared to speak up at their local district’s board meetings because right-wing groups have been harassing parents who are in favor of COVID mitigations. 

Jennifer Cresse, a parent in Sunset Ridge School District 29, which has made masking optional, said she was uncomfortable sending her child to school because he has health concerns, but the district does not have a remote learning option and there isn’t a homeschooling program in which she can enroll her son. 

“We’ve allowed for the safety of our children to be turned into a political issue with little regard for scientific evidence,” said Cresse. “We need your help to provide for a safer environment for all students including those with medical issues themselves, or family members.”

April Jackie, an Illinois parent who lives in a rural area and has neurodivergent children, told the board that her school district held an emergency meeting to change its COVID mitigation plans. 

“Why are we not attempting to educate, spread facts rather than bow down to the misinformed?” said Jackie. “Encourage unity, compassion as a community having civil discussions and debates rather than giving in, holding up, and emboldening those that are self-centered, lacking compassion and empathy.”

Samantha Smylie is the state education reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago, covering school districts across the state, legislation, special education, and the state board of education. Contact Samantha at ssmylie@chalkbeat.org.

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