School Mask Decision: What the New Ruling Means for Illinois Classrooms

Gov. J.B. Pritzker's appeal of a lower court's ruling against mask mandates in schools was rejected late Thursday night by an appellate court, which wrote the request is “moot” because the governor’s emergency COVID-19 rules already expired.

The highly-anticipated decision from the three-member panel of the Illinois Fourth District Appellate Court was published just before midnight Thursday.

Here's what the decision means for Illinois' schools:

Can schools still require masks in the classroom?

Yes, the court's ruling means that the decision of whether or not to require masks and implement individual COVID requirements is up to individual school districts.

The appellate court's decision currently gives schools the option to enact a mask mandate in the classroom, but it does not impact the enforceability of the governor's executive orders, according to Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul.

What is Chicago Public Schools doing about masks?

Chicago Public Schools will continue to require face coverings in the classroom, as well as other COVID protocols, despite the dismissal from the Illinois appellate court.

In a statement Friday, CPS officials said the district will continue to mandate masks and COVID vaccinations for staff, as well as require students who have tested positive or been exposed to the coronavirus to work from home.

"Our schools will continue to enforce these policies, including mandated universal masking. These safety measures are what have allowed us to provide our students with the in-person learning environment they need throughout this school year. We will continue to follow these protocols until such time as our public health partners advise us that restrictions can be safely lifted," CPS said in a statement.

What about the Archdiocese of Chicago?

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago announced last week that masks will be optional in some school settings, citing low coronavirus cases across the district.

In a letter to families on Feb. 8, 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.

What was the reasoning behind the appellate court's ruling?

In their decision, the appellate court justices wrote there is no “actual controversy” to decide.

“Because the emergency rules voided by the TRO are no longer in effect, a controversy regarding the application of those rules no longer exists. Thus, the matter is moot,” the justices wrote.

The justices continued, “We note the language of the TRO in no way restrains school districts from acting independently from the executive orders or the IDPH in creating provisions addressing COVID-19.”

The decision by the appeals court hinges on a bipartisan legislative committee’s vote earlier this week not to renew Pritzker’s emergency rules, which first took effect in September 2021.

On Tuesday, lawmakers who serve on the Joint Committee of Administrative Rules voted to temporarily suspended the school mask mandate, with three Democrats crossing over to vote to halt the measure.

On Feb. 4, a Sangamon County judge issued a temporary restraining order that blocked the state from enforcing the rules that called for mask mandates and other COVID restrictions in schools.

While the state appealed the judge’s temporary restraining order, the rules expired on Feb. 13.

What's next?

Pritzker said the state will ask the Illinois Supreme Court to review an appellate court decision making masks optional in school settings, noting the ruling failed "to address important legal issues."

A spokesperson for Pritzker said Friday that the governor is "disappointed" in the appellate court's decision, and is working with the attorney general to request an expedited review from the Supreme Court.

"In the meantime, the Governor urges everyone to continue following the doctors’ advice to wear masks so students can remain safely learning in classrooms, and is encouraged that the court made it clear that school districts can continue to keep their own mitigations in place," Jordan Abudayyeh, press secretary for the governor's office, said in a statement.

Raoul said in a statement that the appellate court's ruling focused on the emergency rulemaking process used by the Illinois Department of Public Health, nothing that the rule does not impact executive orders from the governor.

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