Illinois school mask mandate ruling forces districts to decide whether or not to make masks optional

Parents lash out at Naperville school board meeting after district decides to keep requiring masks

Tuesday, February 8, 2022
Suburban parents lash out at school district officials
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After a downstate judge ruled against Pritzker's school mask mandate, suburban parents lashed out at school boards who chose to continue to require masks in schools.

SCHAUMBURG, Ill. (WLS) -- An Illinois judge's ruling has forced many schools Monday to decide whether to continue with a mask mandate or to make them optional, and emotions across the state are running high.

Some school districts kept their mask rules in place, while others made them optional.

But emotions boiled over a meeting in Naperville Monday night.

"Why are you continuing to enforce a mandate that is null and void?" ranted one parent. "You have all shown your true colors. It is not the children you care about."

"I'm not sure who you represent but it is not us," said another parent.

The parents from District 203 read from the temporary restraining order. Last Friday, the judge in Sangamon County ruled against Governor JB Pritzker's mask mandate inside school buildings, in response to lawsuits involving parents and teachers from more than 150 districts.

After that ruling went in favor the lawsuit, whose plaintiffs include parents from District 203, the board decided in a closed-door Sunday meeting that they would continue to require masks in schools.

"Naperville made a decision per the guidance of health departments, to continue the requirement of masking in schools, buses, after school activities, with the exception of the named parties in the lawsuit," said Superintendent Dan Bridges.

Several surrounding school districts, including Schaumburg, Elmhurst, Arlington Heights, Barrington and Wheaton, have chosen to make masks optional. Dozens of students showed up at Naperville schools Monday maskless. They were separated out and did e-learning activities.

Between vitriol, tears and begging for mask choice, just a few parents and a teacher stepped up to back the board's decision to keep masks mandatory for now.

"Their goal is to intimidate you," one parent said. "You guys have kept school running."

Governor JB Pritzker spoke about the ruling Monday morning at a press conference on preventing expressway shootings. Governor Pritzker said the judge's ruling, "cultivates chaos" and that, "poor legal reasoning should not take one of our most effective tools off the table so again, I have asked the attorney general to continue to aggressively appeal this decision."

Attorney General Raoul officially filed an appeal Monday morning.

SEE ALSO | Restaurant vaccine mandate, indoor mask rules could end 'soon' if COVID cases stay in free fall

A group of Wheaton parents gathered to protest outside District 200's headquarters Monday, demanding school administrators walk back its mask optional policy change.

After nearly two years of online learning, Claudette Cummings was on the verge of going back to in-person learning. Not anymore.

"She's had three open heart surgeries and she has a low oxygen level, so for her COVID could be calamitous," said her mother Leslie Cummings.

For others, the mask optional decision was long overdue.

"We're really excited for that," said father of three Michael Lafido. "I have a daughter that is a little speech delayed. Reading lips is really important for her."

As one of the districts named in the lawsuit that resulted in the temporary restraining order, administrators said removing the mask mandate for their schools was a legal decision.

"What we issued last night we did with full recognition that it's being appealed and that it is possible and likely that something will change," said Supt. Jeff Schuler, Community Unit School District 200.

In Schaumburg's District 54, masks in school are now optional. It's a big change for students and parents at Robert Frost Junior High School in Schaumburg. Some are comfortable with the switch to a mask optional policy, while others are not.

Patti Rojek told her 13-year-old son Sam to keep wearing his.

"My opinion, I think they should still be wearing the masks," Rojek said. "It's not that big of a deal in my opinion. It's something small that's working."

When is right time for schools to lift mask mandate?

Sam said he is listening to his mom and the new rules have him worried.

"Kind of uncomfortable because I'll know that they're more likely to get sick and they're more likely to pass it to me," Rojek said.

Others think it is time to lift the mandate.

"We now have vaccinations," said Robert Frost Junior High parent Brian Watson. "We have medications that can address the issue. At what point as a society do we say let's try to go back to normal? Because it will never be perfect."

Robert Frost 8th grader Teresa Watson said she wants to see how the mask optional policy goes.

"Some people were saying like, 'Oh yeah this is so exciting finally!' and other people were like, 'I'm still gonna wear it.' I mean obviously I'm still gonna wear it because I haven't gotten my booster yet, but I guess I'll just have to see," she said.

Meanwhile, Chicago Public Schools said it will continue to require masks, as will U-46 in Elgin.

The state's second largest school district will have an exemption for a handful of students whose parents were part of the lawsuit, but that's it.

SEE ALSO | Restaurant vaccine mandate, indoor mask rules could end 'soon' if COVID cases stay in free fall

"Based on the wording of the temporary restraining order we believe we still have the authority to enforce mask wearing as part of our local mitigation efforts, and again, the local bargaining agreements that we have that compel us to provide a safe environment for our employees to work," U-46 Superintendent Tony Sanders said.

Many others have moved swiftly to lift the mask mandate. Some said they will continue to strongly encourage their use, others that these are decisions that should be made at home, like the Superintendent of Timothy Christian Schools in Elmhurst.

"We have wide spaces (and) large classrooms. We believe we can achieve this," said Matt Davidson, superintendent for Timothy Christian Schools. "We're seeing it in so many places, tens of thousands of schools across the country, have been mask optional all year long."

Davidson said he believes he has the support of most of his school community. With nearly 1,300 students, Timothy Christian is the largest Christian school in Illinois.

"We have kids who are really suffering," Davidson added, "and we just want to present an optional environment where those decisions for the children can be made in the home and we're going to respect them."

Also going "mask optional" are large suburban public school districts across the area, including those in Schaumburg, Elmhurst, Arlington Heights, Barrington and Wheaton, where Shannon Limjuco has two elementary school grade children. She said her kids will continue wearing their masks.

"I'm upset," Limjuco said. "I think it's the wrong call."

Chicago Public Schools and its 350,000 students will continue masking.

CPS said in a statement last week that the court's ruling does not prohibit the school district from continuing its COVID-19 mitigation policies and procedures, including universal masking, and that the district "will stay the course."

Anti-mask families rally outside Clarendon Hills/Hindsdale District 181

Parents came armed with no mask signs, American flags and their children to protest mask mandates as school district employees looked down at them from their offices.

"There is no rhyme or reason to have it, if people can have masks optional, that is the best decision for everyone," said Natalie Merchant, anti-mask parent.

"It's time for kids out of masks. All parents want is a choice," said Jennifer Hildreth, anti-mask parent.

District 181 schools went to remote learning Monday while administrators figure out how to interpret the ruling; the district is a party in the case.

"I think they should follow health recommendations, which right now say kids should be in a mask<' said Reid McCollum, pro-mask parent.

The mask mandate remains at Hinsdale high schools. According to District 86, about 55 of students at Hinsdale Central refused to wear a mask Monday; they were given the choice ot go to the auditorium or back home.

"I chose to head to the auditorium without my mask on and really didn't want to go home, I felt it was our right to stay here without our masks per the ruling on a Friday," said senior Sydney Pjesky.

Schools cobble together mask policies in wake of ruling

Geneva District 304 has declared Monday an emergency day as the schools work out what they will do regarding masks, officials announced Sunday night. The day will be made up on May 31.

Hinsdale District 181 schools also declare an emergency due to the mask ruling and will be going remote Monday, officials said.

In St. Charles, district officials have also decided to cancel classes and use an emergency day Monday. They also voted that starting Tuesday, masks will be suggested but not required. The board added that they encourage everyone to wear a mask due to high transmission rates in schools.

District Breakdown:

- Chicago Public Schools: Masks required

- Timothy Christian Schools: Mask optional

- U-46 in Elgin: Undecided

- Barrington School District: Masks recommended but not required

- District 200 in Wheaton: Masks recommended but not required

- District 67 in Lake Forest: Masks recommended but not required

-Geneva School District 304: School canceled Monday. Mask optional on Tuesday.

-Hinsdale/Clarendon Hills School District 181- Open Tuesday. Masks optional but encouraged.

-Schaumburg District 54: Masks not require

- St. Charles CUSD 303: Masks suggested but not required

-Orland School District 135: Masks not required

-Wheaton School District 200: Masks recommended but not required

-Plainfield District 202: Masks recommended but not required

-Lisle District 202- Continuing mask mandate, will make final decision after survey of parents

-Algonquin District 300- Open Tuesday, continuing mask mandate

The Archdiocese of Chicago sent a letter to parents and students Saturday that said they are "closely monitoring the case."

"Because future court rulings may go back and forth, and because changing our policies back and forth would create confusion and disruption in our schools, we will continue the current mask policy for now," Archdiocese officials said.

In granting them a temporary restraining order, Sangamon County Circuit Court Judge Raylene DeWitte Grischow said the mandates violate the plaintiffs' "due process rights under the law which provide them a meaningful opportunity to object to any such mitigations."

Full Statement from Gov. JB Pritzker

Governor Pritzker has asked the Illinois Attorney General's office for an immediate appeal of Judge Grischow's decision to restrain the State from enforcing the safety measures aimed at protecting teachers, school personnel, students and communities from COVID-19.

The Attorney General is seeking an expedited appeal from the Fourth District Illinois Appellate Court.
"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," said Governor JB Pritzker. "This shows yet again that the mask mandate and school exclusion protocols are essential tools to keep schools open and everyone safe. As we have from the beginning of the pandemic, the administration will keep working to ensure every Illinoisan has the tools needed to keep themselves and their loved ones safe."

"We remain committed to defending Gov. 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," said Attorney General Kwame Raoul. "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. The court's misguided decision is wrong on the law, demonstrates a misunderstanding of Illinois emergency injunction proceedings and has no relation to the record that was before the court. It prioritizes a relatively small group of plaintiffs who refuse to follow widely-accepted science over the rights of other students, faculty and staff to enter schools without the fear of contracting a virus that has claimed the lives of more than 31,000 Illinois residents - or taking that virus home to their loved ones."
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Pritzker administration has implemented mitigations and programming to protect the health and safety of students, teachers, and staff in schools. To facilitate safe in-person learning, the administration has provided schools across the state with 3.8 million masks for students, teachers, and staff as of January 12th. The State has completed over 2 million COVID-19 tests in schools through the SHIELD program and sent more than a million rapid tests into schools outside of the City of Chicago. Recently, the State provided 350,000 rapid tests to Chicago Public Schools to facilitate a return to in person learning.

To increase access to the lifesaving COVID-19 vaccination, the State has held 1,767 on-site vaccination clinics in schools and day camps with an additional 470 clinics already scheduled. Vaccinations, boosters, mask-wearing and testing are the key to keeping schools open and to maintaining safety standards for staff and students alike.

Full Statement from Illinois Federation of Teachers

The Illinois Federation of Teachers is greatly distressed at the judge's temporary restraining order (TRO) in this case. Hundreds of thousands of students, teachers, and staff across Illinois are doing their best to remain healthy and keep schools open. We believe what the judge ordered today is legally faulty and a threat to public health and, most importantly, a threat to keeping Illinois schools open for in-person learning. Our children and their families need certainty and some normalcy at school, not legal wrangling managed by a small minority of citizens.

We urge the judge to stay her ruling and the state to appeal it as soon as possible. In the meantime, we will continue to advise our members on how to remain safe and healthy at work. We insist that school districts statewide abide by existing agreements on health and safety. In fact, the safety mitigations encompassed by the State's guidance, as well as vaccinations for children and adults, are the best ways to keep schools open and everyone healthy. And we will stand with our local unions to protect our members and the students they serve.