Illinois AG seeks stay against mask order; suburban schools split on whether masks will be required Monday
Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul's office on Saturday filed for an emergency stay aiming to pause a downstate judge's temporary restraining order that could prevent school districts statewide from requiring students to wear masks in classrooms.
"We remain committed to defending Gov. (J.B.) Pritzker's actions to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and will appeal this decision in the Illinois Appellate Court for the 4th District in Springfield," Raoul wrote in a statement Friday. "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."
Friday's ruling could result in school shutdowns, the Illinois Education Association warned Saturday.
"This decision has the potential to shut our schools down, effectively closing our school buildings and perhaps being potent enough to stop in person learning altogether," the IEA said in a statement. "The teacher and education employee shortage is at a crisis level. Schools are shutting down because they do not have enough healthy employees to safely hold classes even though staff continue to give up their plan time and lunches to cover classes."
Chicago Public Schools said district officials and teacher union leaders on Saturday affirmed that masking requirements will remain in place in CPS classrooms despite the judge's ruling.
CPS leaders asserted that the temporary restraining order issued Friday night by Sangamon County Circuit Judge Raylene Grischow "does not prohibit CPS from exercising its authority to continue its COVID-19 mitigation policies and procedures," including the masking edict and vaccination and testing requirements for staffers.
Elgin Area School District U-46 said Saturday that its superintendent, administrators and legal counsel are in the process of reviewing the judge's decision.
Naperville District 203 and Wheaton Warrenville District 200 also said they are consulting with legal counsel about the ruling and haven't decided whether COVID-19 policies will be updated yet.
But others schools in the suburbs quickly announced plans to go maskless. After the order was released, Timothy Christian Schools in Elmhurst decided masks would be optional beginning Monday.
Superintendent Matt Davidson said he was clear from the start of the school year that his goal was to create a mask-optional setting. While many students have adjusted to the mask requirement, Davidson said some children, particularly younger ones, were suffering and that many parents were relieved by the news.
"We have to move the narrative away from 'this can't be done.' It can be done," Davidson said.
Superintendent Lori Bein announced District 25 elementary schools will no longer require masks, but instead "highly recommend" mask-wearing. Masks will still be required on school transportation.
The district will also no longer exclude students who were in close contact with COVID-19 and will not contact trace, Bein said.
Unvaccinated staff members are also no longer required to participate in weekly COVID-19 testing, but saliva testing will still be available for those who choose to participate.
Bein said the district is continuing to review its COVID-19 protocols.
"We know that this is a sudden change in how our buildings have been operating this year," Bein said. "We want to reassure you that the health and safety of our students and staff is of the utmost importance to us and we will send you additional information when it becomes available."
Similarly, Superintendent David Schuler announced that Northwest Suburban District 214 will no longer require masks in school buildings but continue to require masking on transportation due to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's federal requirement. People who have been exposed to COVID-19 don't have to quarantine and unvaccinated staff members no longer have to test weekly.
Schuler said that if the court's decision is reversed, District 214 will revert to its original policies.
In addition to the restraining order on masking requirements, the ruling also deemed several other COVID-19 mitigation efforts put in place by Pritzker "null and void" -- including an emergency order issued in September mandating COVID-19 vaccinations for school personnel.
Grischow's order -- issued in response to a lawsuit by a group of parents and teachers in the county that includes Springfield -- was immediately slammed by Pritzker's office as "misguided."
"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.
In a video posted to Facebook, attorney Thomas DeVore, who has represented families fighting against mask mandates, told viewers that any school district which continues to enforce a masking mandate Monday would be acting unlawfully.
"There could be significant liability for school districts to continue to implement and enforce requirements that this court has said violates due process of law," DeVore said in the video.
DeVore did not immediately respond to requests for further comment Saturday.
Public health experts have long urged residents to wear masks around others during the pandemic, as a means for mask-wearers to keep their microbes to themselves and slow viral spread.
Illinois recorded its highest COVID-19 case numbers of the pandemic in December and January, but infections have dropped dramatically over the past week as the omicron surge subsides.
According to CPS, about 53% of students 12 or older are fully vaccinated, and about 33% of kids 5 to 11 have gotten a shot. More than 91% of staffers have completed at least their initial vaccine series.
In the past, Pritzker has been successful in overturning similar challenges to his use of emergency powers. But for now, this ruling is significant and could impact thousands of schools.
• The Chicago Sun Times contributed to this report.