Our View: Law needed to prepare for next pandemic

The chaos we are experiencing today over masks in schools could have been avoided

Shannon Limjuco, parent of a fifth-grader and second-grader in Community Unit School District 200, rallies in favor of requiring masks in schools outside the district’s headquarters in Wheaton on Monday, Feb. 7, 2022.

On Feb. 4, Sangamon County Circuit Judge Raylene Grischow issued a temporary restraining order barring schools from enforcing the state’s indoor mask requirement. Then chaos ensued across Illinois.

Over that weekend, school boards and administrators tried to make sense of what they should do. Should they make masks optional for all students, teachers and visitors in their schools?Or Should they still require masks for all but those named in the lawsuit?

Some districts decided to open schools Monday remotely. Others chose to close for the day and wait for direction from the state. Many schools went about class as usual. At a handful of the schools that opened, the chaos escalated. Parents protested the judge’s order, others demonstrated in favor, and inside the schools, well, there have been reports of fist fights and masks being ripped off those wearing them.

The incidents persisted throughout the week. Even some public school board meetings were canceled or moved to virtual gatherings for the public’s safety. And as the Attorney General sought to appeal the judge’s ruling, Gov. JB Pritzker on Wednesday tried to make the mask mandate more clear: proclaiming masks would no longer be needed indoors starting Feb. 28 – but they would remain mandatory in schools. It’s also worth mentioning the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to recommend masks.

The lessons our children are learning from these episodes have nothing to do with education, and more to do with the worst of the worst of politics. And we saw it coming when the governor last August issued an executive order to fight the pandemic mandating citizens wear masks indoors, including inside schools. Immediately, school board of education meetings erupted into shouting matches. Some board members and administrators were threatened with violence. Lawsuits were filed, including the one the Sangamon County judge ruled on last week. But this case involved hundreds of school districts, increasing the impact of the judge’s ruling.

These battles must stop. Calling for civility is not enough, and hasn’t worked. We’ve asked for it before and today the situation is even worse.

The pandemic cannot be ended through executive orders and lawsuits. We need a law to address this situation. Executive orders have only so much power and can be fought in court, as we see today. And they often expire with the executive who made them. But laws have more power and set precedent for generations, until a legislature votes them down or amends them. They also set guidelines.

The next pandemic may not take another 100 years to reoccur, like the 1918 flu. We should be prepared for it with a law in place that sets rules and standards for our leaders and citizens to follow.

We mustn’t leave this up to politics, such as an executive order and the whim of a partisan judge, to determine the health and safety of our students, educators and families.

We need a law in place for today, and for the next pandemic. We call on the Illinois legislature to step up to consult with constituents, health and education leaders and draft a law that will help prevent what we are experiencing today.

The chaos must stop.