State

Gov. JB Pritzker slams Sangamon County judge’s school mask order, says it ‘cultivates chaos’ for schools, families

As schools across the state scramble to adjust to a Downstate judge’s order against his indoor mask mandate, Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker on Monday slammed the decision as one that sows chaos in an already difficult situation brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pritzker doubled-down on his vow to swiftly appeal Sangamon County Circuit Judge Raylene Grischow’s order in court and urged schools not named in the lawsuit to continue enforcing the policy that requires everyone in schools – including parents, teachers and administrators – to wear a mask while at school. The Illinois Attorney General’s office on Monday filed an appeal before the Illinois Appellate Court’s Fourth District seeking a stay of Grischow’s order.

“Judge Raylene Grishow’s ruling is out of step with the vast majority of legal analysis in Illinois and across the nation. Most importantly, it constrains the ability of the named school districts to maintain safe in-person learning requirements. As if kids need a minute more of remote learning when there are common sense tools that we have to reduce and prevent,” Pritzker said during an unrelated news conference. “The judge’s decision cultivates chaos for parents, families, teachers, and school administrators across the state and I’ve asked Attorney General Kwame Raoul to seek to have the ruling overturned with all possible speed.”

Grischow on Friday granted a temporary restraining order in a lawsuit involving a number of schools and families from across the state that challenges Pritzker’s mask mandate as an overstep of his authority. School administrators across the state spent the weekend scrambling to react to the decision, with some holding special emergency meetings or taking other measures.

While some districts opted to suspend the state’s mask rules or switch to a mask-optional policy, others chose to continue requiring masks and some – such as Geneva, St. Charles and Algonquin-based Community School District 300 – called off classes altogether on Monday as they try to sort out their COVID-19 mitigation policies.

Grischow’s restraining order blocks almost 170 school districts named in Greenville attorney Thomas DeVore’s lawsuit from enforcing mask requirements and exclusion rules for students and staff as well as vaccination and testing requirements for school staff without a “due process.”

Grischow also denied class certification in the lawsuit, limiting the impact of the involved suit to only those individuals listed as plaintiffs or defendants in the lawsuit.

“As for this specific case, poor legal reasoning should not take one of our most effective tools off the table,” Pritzker said. “So again, I’ve asked the attorney general to continue to aggressively appeal this decision so that school districts can do what they need to do to keep students staff and community safe.”

Several school districts, such as Peru and Streator Elementary, Mendota, Putnam County, Unit 2 (Serena) and Fieldcrest schools, Hall and La Salle-Peru high schools, among others, have decided to maintain the state’s orders, that didn’t stop other districts from re-examining their policies.

Seneca High School, for example, issued a letter to its parents implementing a plan its school board put into place in June, in which masking was optional in certain situations. Princeton High School, Princeton Elementary and Earlville school districts also are suspending their mask mandates.

Streator High School scheduled an e-learning day Monday to allow time for its board of education to meet 7 p.m. Monday in the school’s auditorium and vote on following the temporary restraining order.

The La Salle-Peru High School Board called an emergency meeting Sunday to re-examine its COVID-19 policy. Because it was not named in the lawsuit, the board decided to keep its protocols in place, which requires students and staff to wear masks. Some residents attending the meeting shouted in disagreement at the board’s decision, calling them cowards and threatening to vote them out during the next election.

Ottawa High School Superintendent Michael Cushing issued a statement on the school’s website stating the school will continue to follow the mandates (executive orders) regarding masking, vaccinations, exclusions, and weekly testing.

Woodland Superintendent Ryan McGuckin said “masks remain on” at the South Streator school until more clarity is given by the district’s legal team, noting the issue is “stuck in legal clouds.”

Plainfield School District 202 said in a message to families on Sunday that masks are “strongly encouraged” but will not be required for students, staff or visitors until further notice.

But Joliet Public Schools District 86 told parents on Sunday it will continue to require masks in all of its buildings because the district was not named in the lawsuit challenging the mask mandate that resulted in the restraining order.

District 202 made note of the fluid situation in its message.

“Please understand that the judge’s decision is already being appealed,” the district wrote. “This is just the first step of a longer process that may ultimately end up with the state Supreme Court. Therefore, the situation could quickly change, which means our COVID-19 mitigation plans could quickly change, too.”

Pritzker on Monday urged school districts not named as a defendant in the case to continue following the mandate and said districts also should continue following any public health requirements they’ve agreed on with teacher unions.

“Masks work, which is why Illinois is leading the Midwest in its pandemic response. Masks keep kids safely in school in-person, which we all want,” Pritzker said. “Across the state, the nation and the world, the evidence is there, whether or not you want to look at it. In the moment that we’re in right now, masks are a proven tool, not a new feature of life but a tool to get us through this time.”

The governor also noted that Illinois’ COVID-19 numbers have been improving from recent spike in cases and hospitalizations brought on by the omicron variant. He said state health officials continue monitoring the data daily, particularly hospitalizations, and hope to have additional guidance in the coming days.

Pritzker noted that the state removed indoor masking requirements previously, but reimposed them in August before school started as cases brought on by the delta variant were increasing.

“That’s going to be something we’re going to have to consider all the way along here,” Pritzker said. “Even when if we remove the requirement that people wear masks in various settings, there may come a time in the future when we would want people to put their mask back on. That’s why we’re fighting this case and appealing this case.”