school mask mandate

Ruling on Illinois School Mask Mandate Lawsuit: What to Know So Far

What does it mean, how are schools responding and what's next?

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A downstate Illinois judge made a ruling late last week that effectively prohibits a statewide mask requirement in schools, sparking plenty of confusion from school districts across the state.

So what does it mean, how are schools responding and what's next? Here's what we know so far.

What exactly happened with the ruling?

A judge in downstate Sangamon County granted a temporary restraining order Friday effectively prohibiting mask requirements for students in numerous school districts across the state.

Parents filed suit against more than 140 school districts, Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the Illinois State Board of Education last year, arguing there was no due process in Illinois' statewide mask order.

Sangamon County Circuit Court Judge Raylene Grischow heard oral arguments in the case earlier this month prior to granting the temporary restraining order.

READ: Judge Raylene Grischow's full ruling here.

The ruling announced Friday afternoon states defendants are temporarily restrained from ordering school districts to require masks for students and teachers - unless a quarantine order is issued by a local health department.

The judge's decision covers districts across the state but not Chicago Public Schools.

According to the ruling, collectively-bargained agreements remain enforceable, like the one between CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union.

What happens next?

Now that the judge has made her widely-anticipated ruling, what are the next steps?

The state of Illinois announced it will appeal the decision, with Pritzker late Friday calling the ruling "misguided."

The governor's office issued a news release saying schools may be forced to go remote if they don't have proper tools to keep students and staff safe.

Pritzker had harsh words for the judge's decision and quickly urged the state's attorney general's office to appeal, suggesting the ruling could spark another surge in the virus.

“The grave consequence of this misguided decision is that schools in these districts no longer have sufficient tools to keep students and staff safe while COVID-19 continues to threaten our communities — and this may force schools to go remote,” Pritzker said in a statement. “This shows yet again that the mask mandate and school exclusion protocols are essential tools to keep schools open and everyone safe.”

Attorney General Kwame Raoul agreed with Pritzker that the ruling would make it more difficult to protect students and school employees from the virus, and said he would appeal.

“This decision sends the message that all students do not have the same right to safely access schools and classrooms in Illinois, particularly if they have disabilities or other health concerns,” Raoul said in a statement.

How are schools responding?

As school districts across the state begin to interpret the order, different actions are being taken.

At least one Illinois school district has canceled classes for Monday and many others have decided to recommend masks.

Geneva Community United School District 304 said it will cancel classes Monday, explaining implementing an emergency day is in its best interest.

"We recognize the challenges this decision may have on our families, but given the fluidity of the situation we strongly feel that this time is necessary to effectively plan for any potential impact on our students, staff, and school community," said Dr. Kent Mutchler, superintendent.

Community Consolidated School District 181, which has schools in Clarendon Hills, Hinsdale, and Burr Ridge, said Monday will be an emergency remote instruction day.

"Due to the multiple interpretations of the ruling and the status of the State mandates, there is a strong likelihood that there will be disruption in our schools which will have a substantial negative impact on the delivery of instruction and the health and safety of our students and staff," the district said in a letter to families.

Arlington Heights School District 25 distributed a letter to parents saying it will be in a "mask recommended environment" - at least during the Temporary Restraining Order period.

Crystal Lake Elementary District 47 issued a similar message explaining "face masks will be strongly recommended but not required at school and at all school-related events for staff and students, as well as visitors and volunteers."

In south suburban Burbank, School District 111 will "fully comply with the court's ruling," but recommends masks be worn by all students and staff in school buildings.

Elgin Area School District U46 is standing by its requirement, explaining its Board of Education approved a resolution in August of last year supporting that the district follows recommendations issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as local health agencies.

"Within her ruling, Judge Grischow, recognizes the independent authority of school districts," Supt. Tony Sanders said in a letter to parents.

However, the district explained there are students who have exceptions as they are included in the lawsuit in which the TRO was issued.

Vernon Hills-based Community High School District 128, too, will still enforce the mask mandate, except for when it comes to students named in the lawsuit.

Others, however, are waiting for clarification before proceeding.

Oswego Community Unit School District 308 said it was "consulting with our district attorneys to further understand the impact of the decision for our students and staff."

Some districts are put in a different situation due to collective bargaining agreements.

According to the ruling, such agreements remain enforceable, like the one between Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union.

"...We expect the mayor and CPS to act responsibly and uphold our agreement to require masks — providing KN95 masks for every adult and child in our schools," CTU said in a statement. "This is what the overwhelming majority of Chicago parents and families support."

What are experts saying?

Prior to the ruling, NBC 5 talked to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, about the state of COVID-19 in Illinois.

When it comes to relaxing mitigations in schools, Fauci said, "We're not there yet."

NBC Chicago/Associated Press
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