Sauk Valley schools complying with temporary order voiding mask mandate

Students put on their masks before entering Newman Central Catholic High School in Sterling this morning, the first day of fall classes. The private school opted for in-person learning 5 days a week, with several now-common COVID-19 safety measure in place, including temperature checks, masks and social distancing in classrooms,

Two of the Sauk Valley’s largest school districts – and apparently, most others – are making mask-wearing optional in the wake of a temporary restraining order issued Friday by a Sangamon County Circuit Court judge that nullifies Gov. JB Pritzker’s emergency provision issued in August.

Neither Sterling nor Dixon public schools are enforcing mask mandates in the schools. Nor is Rock Falls Elementary District 13, or the Morrison school district.

The Rockford Diocese, which governs Catholic schools and parishes in Lee, Whiteside, Ogle and Carroll counties, also is not enforcing the mask mandate and is allowing students previously excluded as close contacts to return to class if they have no symptoms. Nonvaccinated staff will not be required to test weekly.

Messages left at Rock Falls High School this morning have not yet been returned, and nothing had been posted either to its website or Facebook page as of this afternoon.

Masks still are being required on school buses, because federal Centers for Disease Control rules governing student transportation remain in force.

Dixon Superintendent Margo Empen said in a letter to parents Sunday that “this remains a very fluid situation” that could change, especially if a hold is placed on the temporary order to allow the appeals process to continue.

Because the issue could be a point of contention, Empen said “we expect our students to arrive at school and remain respectful and compassionate towards each other. We expect teachers, staff and parents to treat one another with respect and compassion.”

Sterling Superintendent Tad Everett also issued a bulletin to parents and students Sunday night in which he said although it will be optional, the district still recommends students and staff wear masks.

“Bullying or shaming for wearing masks, or not wearing masks, will not be tolerated,” Everett also said. “These situations will be handled swiftly, and could result in discipline.”

Students and staff still must abide by any mask rules required by the host for extracurricular events, he wrote.

“I am asking for students and parents to continue being patient and understanding as we collectively try our best to navigate these latest changes to the COVID-19 guidance and rules for Illinois schools.

The diocese also recommends staff and students continue to wear masks at school, Superintendent Vito C. DeFrisco said in a letter issued to parents on Sunday.

The court issued the ruling Friday after arguments were made in a lawsuit brought by Greenville attorney Thomas DeVore on behalf of students and some teachers that directly affects more than 140 school districts.

Erie and Fulton public schools are among the districts named as defendants in the suit, and both are complying with the temporary restraining order.

In her ruling, Judge Raylene Grischow wrote that the court was voiding the emergency rules of the Illinois Department of Public Health, then said: “Any nonnamed plaintiffs and school districts throughout this state may govern themselves accordingly.”

The Illinois attorney general is seeking an expedited appeal in the Illinois Fourth District Court to restore the mandate.

“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 Friday. “This shows yet again that the mask mandate and school exclusion protocols are essential tools to keep schools open and everyone safe.”

Troy Taylor

Troy E. Taylor

Was named editor for and the Gazette and Telegraph in 2021. An Illinois native, he has been a reporter or editor in daily newspapers since 1989.