Crime & Courts

Here are the McHenry County school districts named in the mask mandate lawsuit and what they’re doing

A student enters the building past face mask signs during the first day back to school at Woodstock High School on Monday, Aug. 16, 2021

While the McHenry County Department of Health and other local health agencies recommended the continued use of masks as part of a “layered approach” to slowing the spread of COVID-19 in schools, some McHenry County school districts decided to recommend but not require masks.

The decisions followed a temporary restraining order issued late Friday by a Sangamon County judge that said Gov. JB Pritkzer and the Illinois Department of Public Health could not issue a mask mandate for schools or require that students be excluded when they are close contacts to someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

The lawsuit involves about 145 school districts across the state, including eight in McHenry County.

“We hope that everyone can appreciate that the litigation has caused a great deal of confusion and upset in our community,” Crystal Lake Elementary School District 47 Superintendent Kathy Hinz said in a statement. “The situation will remain in flux for some time, at least until the appellate court issues its ruling. Schools operate best when there is routine and consistency. We need your assistance in keeping students calm, focused on learning and accepting of others’ choices as we adjust our mitigation measures.”

The Crystal Lake district was one of several suburban districts to recommend but not require masks following the order – except on school buses where the federal rule that masks are required on public transportation applies.

It was joined by Prairie Grove School District 46, Huntley School District 158 and McHenry School District 15, which said they also would no longer be excluding students who are close contacts to those who tested positive for COVID-19 or conducting contact tracing when a positive case occurs. Woodstock School District 200 also said it would no longer exclude close contacts or require masks.

Crystal Lake-based Community High School District 155 will recommend masks but continue contact tracing. Parents will be asked but not required to keep their students home if they are close contacts.

Harvard School District 50, which was not named in the lawsuit, also announced Sunday that it would make masks “strongly recommended” for students and staff. It would “(a)t least temporarily” continue to identify close contacts and notify parents but students would not be excluded from school unless they develop symptoms.

“We recognize there may be concerns about how this change could impact interactions among students when some may be wearing a mask and others may not,” Hinz said. “We will continue to teach the importance of kindness and respect for others in our schools and encourage families to do the same so we are able to maintain a positive teaching and learning environment.”

Algonquin-based Community School District 300 and Cary School District 26 said they would continue to require masks except for the students named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit because the lawsuit had not been class action certification. The District 26 school board also said in its letter that universal masking and the exclusion of close contacts had been a part of the return-to-school plan it approved in July, before the governor’s order.

The McHenry County health department as part of the Northern Illinois Public Health Consortium issued a statement Sunday afternoon, saying it was aware of the ruling.

The local health departments that make up the consortium recognize “the independent authority of local school districts to determine what mitigations will be adopted in their schools,” they said in the statement.

They said they recommend local school districts to “continue to adopt a layered approach to mitigation to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 among staff, students, and the community, including vaccination, masking and isolation of ill individuals.”

The health departments will continue to conduct case investigations for COVID-19 and issue quarantine and isolation orders in certain circumstances under their authority as outlined in state law, they said.

Here are the McHenry County school districts named in the lawsuit and what their public responses so far have been to the restraining order.

Algonquin-based Community School District 300 with more than 20,000 students serves all or part of Algonquin, Lake in the Hills, Barrington Hills, Hampshire, Gilberts, Pingree Grove, Sleepy Hollow, West Dundee, East Dundee and Carpentersville.

After alerting parents masks would be required in most cases, the district announced Monday morning that it would close schools as a “proactive measure to ensure a safe learning environment for our students and our staff,” according to an alert on the district’s website.

Masks will continue to be required at the Algonquin-based district except those who have already been identified as having a medical exemption and the 19 students named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Superintendent Susan Harkin said in a message to families Sunday.

“Because of this uncertainty and significant confusion reflected in various reports regarding the temporary restraining order, we want to let the community know our clear expectations,” Harkin said. “District 300 will continue to follow and implement its safe return to school plan. Aside from the parties to the lawsuit, District 300 will continue to enforce requirements relating to masks and school exclusion for close contacts.”

She said the district expects a ruling from the appellate court by Feb. 17.

“Until the appellate court issues its ruling, we remain focused with your help to keep our students calm and focused on learning,” Harkin said. “Our main priority has always been to ensure the health and safety of our students, staff members, parents, family members, and residents of our local communities. The recent court decision does not change that fact.”

Crystal Lake Elementary School District 47 with about 7,000 students serves Crystal Lake, Lakewood and a part of Lake in the Hills.

Face masks will be “strongly recommended but not required” at school and all school-related events for staff, students, visitors and volunteers, Superintendent Kathy Hinz said in a statement to families posted on the district’s website.

Students and staff still must wear masks on school buses under federal regulations requiring their use on public transportation, she said.

Students no longer will be excluded from school for being a close contact of someone who tested positive for COVID-19, Hinz said. Schools also will no longer conduct contact tracing.

Students will only be excluded from school if they are sick, at the discretion of the school nurse or another administrator, Hinz said, asking that families keep their children home if they are sick.

District buildings may temporarily need to limit the number of visitors and volunteers in the building as an extra mitigation if the district sees an increase in illness among students and staff, Hinz said.

“A main priority has always been to ensure the health and safety of our students, staff and community,” Hinz said in the letter. “The recent court decision does not change that. The district will continue to meet with the health department and utilize all of our other mitigation strategies.”

Those strategies include staying home when sick, free testing at the district office as well as the voluntary weekly SHIELD testing, physical distancing when possible, cleaning and sanitizing and improvements to ventilation and air quality, including the installation of high efficiency filters on school buses.

Crystal Lake-based Community High School District 155 with 5,600 students covers all or part of Crystal Lake, Cary, Prairie Grove, Fox River Grove, Burtons Bridge, Oakwood Hills, Lakewood, Lake in the Hills and Trout Valley.

Starting Monday, the district will recommend but not require masks for students, staff and visitors, Superintendent Steve Olson said in an email to families. Masks still will be required on buses.

The district will continue to identify close contacts and encourage – but not require – parents to keep their student at home if they are one, he said.

Families who have concerns about their student attending in-person should contact their building administration, Olson said. He noted in his email that the district staff vaccination rate is 93%, that about 62% of 14- to 18-year-olds in McHenry County are vaccinated and he thinks the rate for District 155 students is higher than that, and that other mitigations will continue.

“Balancing the needs of students, staff and families continues to oftentimes be a conflicting proposition,” Olson said. “The need to provide options for stakeholders is and has been at the forefront of our decision making during the time of [COVID-19]. As we approach the days and weeks ahead, your consideration for one another will help us get over this new hurdle. Thanks in advance for your continued support for our student’s educational journey.”

Cary School District 26 has about 2,400 students.

Masks will continue to be required at the district except for the 11 students named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, the district’s school board said in a letter to families Sunday that was provided to the Northwest Herald separately by two different parents.

Universal masking and exclusion of close contacts were a part of the mitigation plan unanimously approved by the District 26 school board on July 26, before the governor’s mandate being imposed, the board said. They will continue to be enforced except for the 11 students named in the lawsuit.

“We serve children with medical conditions that put them at increased risk of illness,” the board said in the letter. “Many of our students and staff members live with family members with compromised health conditions. Our goal throughout the pandemic has been to ensure that we maintain a safe learning environment for all of our students, especially those who are most vulnerable.”

Huntley School District 158 with about 8,600 students covers all or part of Huntley, Algonquin, Lake in the Hills and Gilberts, as well as small portions of Lakewood and Hampshire.

Masks will be “strongly recommended” for students and staff while the temporary restraining order is in effect, Superintendent Scott Rowe said in a letter to families Sunday evening following an emergency school board meeting. Students will be asked to wear a mask if they go to the health office for any reason. Masks will be provided in those cases.

The district will also not be performing contact tracing or excluding close contacts from school until further notice, Rowe said. Students who were deemed a close contact and are currently in quarantine may return to school Monday.

Those who test positive for COVID-19 will continue to be excluded from school, Rowe said. Those currently are in isolation are expected to complete their full period of isolation before returning to school and will be required to wear a mask upon their return through the 10th day after testing positive for COVID-19.

Weekly testing no longer is required for unvaccinated staff, but voluntary testing remains available, he said. The district strongly encourages students or staff who are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 to stay home and get tested.

“Please know, as it has been throughout the entirety of this pandemic, our focus is to protect the learning environment of our students,” Rowe said. “We realize this is an emotional issue, but as an educational institution we remain focused on the ability of our students to learn and grow in the most appropriate environment. We are confident that the mitigations still available to us give us the ability to educate your children safely while adapting to meet the needs of this ever-changing pandemic.”

Prairie Grove School District 46 has about 770 students.

In a statement similar to the one issued by Crystal Lake Elementary School District 47, Prairie Grove School District 46 Superintendent John Bute said the district would recommend but not require masks.

“Schools operate best when rules are consistent and straightforward,” Bute said. “Under the circumstances, we believe that this approach will be easier to enforce and will allow our staff members to focus on educating students instead of enforcing mask compliance. That means, staff members will not be monitoring or enforcing a parental decision to have a student wear or not wear a mask.”

Students no longer will be excluded from school for being a close contact of someone who tested positive for COVID-19 and schools no longer will conduct contact tracing, he said. Students will be excluded from school only because of illness at the discretion of the school nurse or other administrator.

“A main priority has always been to ensure the health and safety of our students, staff and community,” Bute said. “The recent court decision does not change that. The district will continue to meet with the local health department and utilize all of our other mitigation strategies: staying home when sick, physical distancing to the greatest extent possible, ventilation and air purification, hand-washing and respiratory etiquette, cohorting of classes to the greatest extent possible, cleaning and sanitizing protocols, promoting vaccination and limiting nonessential visitors during the student day.”

McHenry School District 15 with less than 4,100 students serves all or part of McHenry, Bull Valley, McCullom Lake, Lakemoor and Holiday Hills.

The district will recommend but not require that staff and students wear masks at least while the temporary restraining order is in effect, Superintendent Josh Reitz said in a letter posted to the district website. Masks will be required on buses.

Close contacts no longer will be excluded and schools will no longer conduct contact tracing, Reitz said. Any student who currently is excluded because of being a close contact may choose to return to school Monday.

Students and staff who test positive should self isolate as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and remote learning will be provided for students who are COVID-19 positive, he said.

Staff members who are unvaccinated will not be required to test weekly, but SHIELD testing will continue for those who opt in, Reitz said.

“This pivot in mitigation strategies is a result of a temporary restraining order [TRO], which is being appealed by the governor,” Reitz said. “Please note that the outcome of the appeal and/or court hearing may impact our mitigation strategies again in the very near future.”

The district’s main priority continues to be the safety and well-being of our students and staff, Reitz said, pointing to other strategies the district is undertaking to limit spread. Those include promoting vaccinations, social distancing to the greatest extent possible, SHIELD testing, the use of hand sanitizer throughout the day and the encouraging of hand-washing, cleaning protocols and improved ventilation in the buildings and air filters on buses”

Woodstock School District 200 with about 6,100 students covers Woodstock and Greenwood as well as parts of Bull Valley and Wonder Lake.

“The overall legal ramifications remain fluid, but as of Monday, Feb. 7, we believe the temporary ruling requires us to change our policy from requiring masks to recommending that students and staff wear them,” Superintendent Mike Moan said in an email families Sunday evening. Masks will remain required on buses.

The district also no longer will be excluding close contacts, district spokesman Kevin Lyons said.

“The decision to wear masks is for now up to each family,” Moan said. “We encourage families to research health officials’ guidance and reach out to your health care provider with any questions about masking.”

This article will be updated as school districts provide more information through the weekend.