Archdiocese of Chicago Switches to Make Masks Optional Inside Some Schools

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The Archdiocese of Chicago announced late Tuesday night that masks will be optional in some school settings, citing low coronavirus cases over the past few weeks.

In a letter to families late Tuesday, archdiocese Supt. Greg Richmond wrote that students will no longer be required to wear a face covering in schools located in areas where the local health department does not have a mask mandate.

In Lake County and most of suburban Cook County, the diocese wrote that masks will be optional beginning Thursday. However, masks will still be required in classrooms in the city of Chicago, Oak Park and Evanston to align with local health departments.

Although masks will be optional inside some classrooms, other COVID-19 protocols will remain in place, Richmond wrote. For students coming out of quarantine, a mask will be required through day 10.

"We will continue monitoring cases in our schools closely and, if we see significant increases in a classroom or an entire school, we may temporarily return to masks until those numbers go back down," Richmond wrote.

The archdiocese currently has no classrooms in quarantine and no schools with more than 3% of students testing positive for COVID, according to the letter. Nearly half of schools within the archdiocese are reporting no coronavirus cases.

A judge in downstate Illinois issued an order Friday preventing enforcement of the statewide mask requirement in schools, saying Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker overstepped his legal authority by implementing such a mandate.

The judge's decision led to uncertainty at school districts statewide over the weekend, prompting administrators to scramble and decide which actions, if any, to take ahead of the start of the school week Monday.

During an emergency meeting Monday, District 181 in Clarendon Hills, which switched to remote learning while officials made a decision on the ruling, said it would temporarily lift the requirement.

The district said it plans to resume classes Tuesday with masks optional. Staff will still be required to wear them, however, and students will still need to wear them on buses.

"We will continue to monitor the status of the case," the district said in a release. "If the rule is reversed or modified on appeal, we will immediately return to a mask mandate."

In Geneva's District 304, which canceled classes Monday while the school decided what it would do, masks will also now be optional.

At least one district canceled classes altogether, multiple others shifted to remote learning and numerous districts decided to strongly recommend - but not require - masks following the decision.

Others, such as Elgin Area School District U46, opted not to drop face covering requirements.

U46 Supt. Tony Sanders explained the district's school board approved COVID-19 mitigations, including a mask mandate, before the governor's mask requirement in schools was issued, and noted Grischow's ruling "recognizes the independent authority of school districts."

Students named in the lawsuit and those with medical exceptions don't have to adhere to the requirement, he said.

Masks will stay on in other school districts, including Chicago Public Schools, as a mask mandate is included in a collective bargaining agreement between the district and Chicago Teachers Union. Such agreements remain enforceable, according to the ruling.

“The court’s ruling does not prohibit CPS from exercising its authority to continue its COVID-19 mitigation policies and procedures,” CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said in a statement.

Pritzker is expected to unveil a plan Wednesday to drop the state’s indoor mask mandate over the course of several weeks, sources tell NBC 5’s Mary Ann Ahern, but that plan will not include a repeal of the mask mandate in public schools.

The governor did, however, instruct Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul to file a notice of appeal Monday challenging the temporary restraining order issued by the downstate Sangamon County judge.

Pritzker called the ruling by Judge Raylene Grischow "out of step with the vast majority of legal analysis," saying it "cultivates chaos for parents, families, teachers and school administrators."

READ: Full ruling issued by Judge Raylene Grischow.

In the ruling issued in response to a lawsuit filed by a group of parents and teachers in more than 140 school districts, Grischow also determined several more of Pritzker’s emergency orders to combat the spread of COVID, including one issued last year that mandates vaccinations for school employees, are “null and void.”

Pritzker said he directed Raoul to seek to have the ruling overturned "with all possible speed." Raoul filed a notice indicating the defendants - the Illinois State Board of Education, the Illinois Department of Public Health and their leaders, as well as Pritzker - intend to appeal, but the process could take weeks or months.

NBC Chicago/Associated Press
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