Northwestern Experts Say Lifting Mask Mandates ‘Is Clearly Not a Decision Based on Data'

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As more schools across Illinois decide to lift mask requirements in the classroom following a downstate judge's decision, experts at Northwestern said removing face-covering mandates "is clearly not a decision based on data."

Dr. Tina Tan, professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, called lifting existing mask mandates "a little bit premature."

“Yes, there are many places that have gotten over the omicron surge, but there are still some places in the U.S. where the peak hasn’t happened yet," Tan said.

The timing also plays a major role in removing masks inside schools, according to Mercedes Carnethon, vice chair of preventive medicine at Feinberg.

“The timing of this is very poor because in Illinois, it’s still very cold so our kids are forced to spend most of their days indoors,” Carnethon said. “It would be one thing in the summer or the late spring when more things can be done outside where transmission rates are lower.” 

Should a new variant emerge and masks are again required inside Illinois schools, both Carnethon and Tan said the switch will cause difficulty and inconsistency for students.

“You won’t ratchet it back up. The horse has left the barn,” Carnethon said. “Since this decision to roll back mask mandates isn’t based on data or public health evidence, it is unlikely that policymakers will rely on data to put them back into place.”

Nadav Shoked, professor at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, said the judge's latest decision on masks creates "much -- arguably unnecessary -- uncertainty."

"The judge does not make clear that the decision only applies to the specific school districts involved in the specific case," Shoked said. "That leaves room for each school district to argue that the decision applies (or doesn’t apply) to it. The decision to grant the requested remedy is also questionable, making a successful appeal by the State a rather likely proposition."

Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Tuesday that residents will be "hearing shortly" about his plans on the statewide mask mandate.

In terms of what state health officials are watching to evaluate the mask mandate, Pritzker said in a press conference that they are monitoring Illinois' hospitalizations, which have been on a decline.

"I'm pleased with the, you know, the fact that we are nearly a third of where we were when we were at our peak in terms of hospitalizations. Our hospitals are actually in much better shape now in terms of being able to manage the other people who come to a hospital -- people who, you know, are in a car accident, have a heart attack, something else," Pritzker said. " And so those are the measurements we use. So you'll be hearing shortly about plans that we have."

The state of Illinois filed 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."

The judge issued the order preventing enforcement of the statewide mask requirement in schools Friday, saying Pritzker overstepped his legal authority by implementing such a mandate.

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-19, including one issued last year that mandates vaccinations for school employees, are “null and void.”

READ: Full ruling issued by Judge Raylene Grischow.

Pritzker said he has directed Illinois Attorney General Kwame 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.

For millions of Illinoisans, Pritzker said, wearing masks has never been about what was "required by the governor or any other authority."

"Masks are, for most people anyway, have been about doing what's right for yourself, for your loved ones, for others, for your community as a whole," he said. "Nowhere is that more true than in schools, community hubs where parents and grandparents, teachers and staff interact with each other every day."

Continuing his criticism of the ruling, Pritzker claimed Grischow has "created a tremendous amount of confusion" in regard to the way the decision was written.

"As for this specific case, poor legal reasoning should not take one of our most effective tools off the table," he said.

A downstate judge's decision to halt Illinois' mask mandate in schools has prompted confusion and frustration for parents across the state. NBC 5's Kate Chappell reports.

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.

NBC Chicago/Associated Press
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