Here we go again: Judge's order sparks conflict, renews debates over masks in schools

Despite a downstate judge's order lifting a statewide mask mandate, many suburban schools insisted students and employees wear face coverings Monday to prevent transmission of the COVID-19 virus.

Whether they complied with the rules varied, however. And there were some demonstrations - both against masks and in favor of them.

At St. Viator High School in Arlington Heights, about 40 students were sent to the gym after walking into the building without masks Monday morning.

The students were told they could don masks and attend classes or go home, according to an email sent to the school community Monday afternoon by the Rev. Daniel Lydon, the school president, and Principal Karen Love.

Some returned to class, some went home, and several refused to do either and remained in the gym.

Administrators later decided to move to remote learning starting Tuesday because of the controversy.

"Our staff, administration, and faculty have been the subject of excessive abuse from some individuals and we are concerned about the safety and wellness of everyone in our building as tensions mount," the administrators wrote.

The long-standing mask requirement in Illinois schools came to an abrupt end Friday, when Sangamon County Judge Raylene Grischow granted a temporary restraining order effectively ending the mandate. The ruling came as part of a lawsuit filed last year by dozens of parents and students against more than 150 school districts statewide.

Wheaton Warrenville Unit School District 200, one of the defendants, opted for voluntary masking because of the ruling.

Some parents protested the decision outside the district's offices Monday.

"I do think we're in a period of confusion and disruption, and that's why I think District 200's decision was outrageous," said Shannon Limjuco, a Wheaton parent who helped organize the demonstration. " ... Other school districts around us are staying the course with masking and other COVID mitigation, knowing that things are still in flux."

Limjuco sent her kids, ages 11 and 8, to Whittier Elementary School in Wheaton with masks but wrestled whether to keep them home out of concern for their health.

"We want our schools to stay open," Limjuco said. "We don't want our teachers and kids getting sick and potentially having to close down our schools."

The attendance rate Monday was consistent with any other Monday in the district, a spokeswoman said.

The district still has "a very strong set of mitigations in our schools, mitigations that apply to our ventilation systems, mitigations with distancing in classrooms," Superintendent Jeff Schuler said.

A sizable demonstration also occurred before Monday's Elgin Area School District U-46 board meeting - but here, the sign-waving protesters were upset with officials' decision to keep masks mandatory.

Among those taking part was Kim Kowall, an interventionist at the district's Illinois Park Early Learning Center in Elgin. She said the young children she works with are suffering setbacks to their speech development and social-emotional learning because of the mask mandate.

"We literally can't hear these kids," Kowall said. "They don't have a voice. Their families don't have a voice."

Campus life was quieter in Maine Township High School District 207, where officials kept a mask order in place at their three campuses. Officials subsequently heard from parents who thanked them for maintaining the policy and others who "expressed disappointment" with the decision, spokesman Brett Clark said.

In Libertyville-Vernon Hills Area High School District 128, officials kept mask mandates in place at both campuses.

The "vast majority" of students attended classes and wore masks with no disruption to the school day, district spokeswoman Mary Todoric said. Teens who didn't follow the policy weren't allowed in class, she said.

Those students met with their principals and were given an opportunity to explain their position and ask questions, Todoric said. Students then were allowed to wear masks and go to class, leave school for the day or complete classwork in a gym.

In Elmhurst Unit District 205, another defendant in the lawsuit, masks now are strongly recommended, but not required.

"We had over 98% student attendance," Superintendent Keisha Campbell said Monday.

Batavia Unit School District 101 officials continued requiring masks for everyone, too. Compliance was good, Superintendent Lisa Hichens said.

"Our students have been very respectful," Hichens said.

Aurora-based Indian Prairie Unit District 204 kept a mask mandate in place except for anyone listed as plaintiffs in the legal fight.

Spokeswoman Lisa Barry said Monday went "pretty smoothly." No students were sent home because they didn't have masks, she said, and no protests developed.

• Daily Herald staff writers Madhu Krishnamurthy, Eric Peterson, Christopher Placek, Susan Sarkauskas, Kevin Schmit and Katlyn Smith contributed to this report.

Erik Hjerpe, with his daughter, Anja, and wife, Amanda, rally in favor of keeping masks in schools, during a protest Monday outside Wheaton Warrenville Unit School District 200 headquarters in Wheaton. "We all want the mitigations to end. I would just hope that (District 200) would specialize in what they do, which is education, and follow the guidance of the health authorities," Hjerpe said. Sandy Bressner/Shaw Media
Ethan Spaid, a sophomore at Wheaton North High School, attended a rally Monday in favor of requiring mask Wheaton Warrenville Unit School District 200 schools. Sandy Bressner/Shaw Media
Shannon Limjuco, parent of a fifth- and second-grader in Wheaton Warrenville Unit School District 200, rallied outside district headquarters Monday in favor of requiring masks in schools. Sandy Bressner/Shaw Media
Parents who are in favor of continuing mask requirements in schools rallied Monday outside Wheaton Warrenville Unit School District 200 headquarters in Wheaton on Monday, Feb. 7, 2022. The rally was organized by the group M.A.S.K.S., which stands for Make All School Kids Safe. Sandy Bressner/Shaw Media
Elgin Area School District U-46 teacher Kim Kowall, at right holding white sign, joined others outside the board of education meeting Monday to protest the district's continuation of its mask mandate. Courtesy of Kim Kowall
  About 150 parents and children protested Monday on the State Street Bridge over the Fox River in Geneva over Geneva Unit District 304's decision to call off school for the day while deciding how to respond to a court order lifting the state's mask mandate for students. John Starks/
  Protesters stood on the State Street Bridge in Geneva on Monday to oppose mask mandates in schools. John Starks/
  About 150 parents and children protested Monday on the State Street Bridge over the Fox River in Geneva over Geneva Unit District 304's decision to call of school for the day while deciding how to respond to a court order lifting the state's mask mandate for students. John Starks/
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