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School Districts Differ In Response To Judge's Halt On Pritzker's Mask Mandate

By Tim McNicholas and Marissa Parra

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Some Illinois schools were sent scrambling this weekend after a downstate judge put a temporary restraining order on Gov. JB Pritzker's mask mandate.

Many school districts across the state are struggling to figure out whether they need to keep mask mandates in place in light of the judge's ruling, which covers more than 140 districts named as defendants in a string of lawsuits against the state's school mask mandate. Many districts are continuing to require masks for students, teachers and staff, while others are now making masks optional. Some districts canceled classes on Monday, hoping to get clarity on the court ruling later this week, while other districts have moved to remote learning. Then there's District 34 in Glenview, which is requiring masks for everyone except the individual plaintiffs named in the lawsuit.

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As districts scrambled to figure out their updated mask policies, so did parents.

"We were a little bit nervous to know what would happen and if it would be chaotic or not," said Catherine Disterheft, a parent in Lombard. "Definitely chaotic."

Fellow Lombard parent Lenore Gutierrez said she was not happy with the judge's ruling.

"I don't think they [masks] should be optional at schools, especially because not all kids have finished their vaccines," she said.

For children at Chicago Public Schools, this ruling changes nothing. CPS students, teachers, and staff will still have to wear masks on Monday.

 

A CPS spokesperson told CBS 2 in a statement that the court's ruling does not prohibit CPS from exercising its authority to continue COVID-19 mitigation policies, including universal masking and vaccination and test requirements for staff members.

The spokesperson added, "We will stay the course."

Meanwhile, the office of Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul has already filed an appeal of the temporary restraining order issued by Sangamon County Judge Raylene Grischow, and has filed a request for an emergency stay on the judge's ruling -- meaning the ruling is in limbo.

The state argues "the court abused its discretion in refusing to balance the harms" caused by its Friday ruling. The state even gives a date on when they'd like the court to reverse course – Feb. 7, this very day.

But so far, that emergency request has not been granted.

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Gov. JB Pritzker on Monday called the judge's ruling blocking enforcement of the state's school mask mandate at scores of districts "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 commonsense tools that we have to reduce and prevent it," Pritzker said. "The judge's decision cultivates chaos for parents, families, teachers, and school administrators across the state."

Pritzker said the judge's ruling has led to confusion about whether or not districts not named as defendants in the case are covered by the temporary restraining order. The governor recommended that schools not named as a defendant in the lawsuit should continue to follow the mask mandate and other COVID-19 protocols.

"Poor legal reasoning should not take one of our most effective tools off the table," Pritzker said. "The judge has created a tremendous amount of confusion, even in the way she wrote her decision, so that has been problematic."

Pritzker also said school districts that have reached COVID-19 safety agreements with teachers unions, such as CPS, also should continue to follow the terms of those agreements.

"Masks keep kids safely in school in-person, which we all want. 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," Pritzker said.

The governor said he is happy to see that the state's COVID-19 metrics are headed in the right direction, with a steep decline in new cases statewide in recent weeks. He said he's hoping that trend continues, which might open the door to lifting the school mask mandate in the coming weeks.

However, Pritzker also noted that, should the state lift any of its COVID-19 mitigations in the near future, it's possible those rules might have to go into effect again down the line if the state sees another surge in cases.

Meanwhile, the attorney who filed the lawsuit against the school mask mandates said he wants changes now.

"The due processes in the law that is written is that if you're trying to do these things with masks and exclusion of students, or testing or vaccinating of teachers, they have rights to object if they don't think it's necessary to do those things," said attorney Tom DeVore.

DeVore also asked why the state had no plan in place, knowing a ruling in the court case was coming.

"Governor, you knew that a ruling was coming on this one way or another," DeVore said. "Why wasn't there guidance ready to announce on Friday - or even sooner, perhaps - about what schools and teachers and parents should do in response to a situation like the one that we're in right now?"

Gov. Pritzker said the guidance when it comes to masks in schools has never changed.

"This is the guidance actually we've been giving all along which is, these are the things that are the tools that can be used to keep everybody healthy," he said. "We've provided the same guidance - people should wear the masks in schools."

The Chicago Archdiocese announced the decision to continue requiring masks in Chicago area Catholic schools. The following statement was released:

"We are continuing to require masks in our schools because we remain concerned about the number of COVID-19 cases in our schools and communities. Nationally, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, over 3.5 million coronavirus child cases were reported in January. In addition, many teachers tell us that they have concerns about working in a mask-optional environment.

But the Joliet Diocese has moved to make masks "recommended" rather than required, effective Tuesday.

Last Friday, the rolling seven-day average of positive cases in our schools was higher than at any point last fall.

Fortunately, the number of positive cases in our schools has dropped significantly over the past month. That is good news. Unfortunately, it is still higher than on any single school day last August, September, or October. COVID-19 is still being transmitted throughout our communities and we do not want our Catholic schools to contribute to that spread – to our school children, teachers, staff, or their families. We want to see the number of positive cases in our schools continue to decline.

We are studying the numbers closely and we will lift the mask mandate in our school as soon as we believe it is safe to do so. When we do, we will be confident that we are safeguarding the health of our students, teachers and staff. We look forward to that day and hope it comes soon.

In the meantime, including tomorrow morning, we will continue to apply the same mask requirements that have been in place for the past year and a half."

Barrington 220 School District has announced it will be recommending but not requiring masks based on this decision. However, masks will be required on school-based transportation due to a federal CDC order, the district said.

Naperville Community School District 203, however, will be continuing to require masks in school. The district cited its legal counsel, saying the legal affect of the temporary restraining order is unclear, and the only exceptions made to current policies will be for named parties to the lawsuit. Elgin Area School District U-46 will also continue to require masks in school, according to a letter from the district's superintendent. Indian Prairie School District 204, too, will continue its COVID protocols.

Community Consolidated School District 181 has opted to use an emergency day and will switch to remote instruction.

Geneva Community Unit School District 304 and St. Charles District 303 have also opted for an emergency day Monday but will not have instruction.

"Due to the multiple interpretations of the ruling and the status of the State mandates, there is a strong likelihood that there will be disruption in our schools which will have a substantial negative impact on the delivery of instruction and the health and safety of our students and staff," District 304 wrote in a letter to parents.

"My stance on it is that a judge made a ruling and we'll be sending our daughter to school tomorrow without a mask. And if the school decides to do anything contrary to what this lawsuit said they should be doing, we will have options moving forward," said District 90 parent Jason Hartrich.

His daughter is in Fulton Jr. High.

"When we discussed this with her this evening as a family she said she just wants to go to school tomorrow as a normal kid," he said.

Their school was not one of the 145 districts listed in Austin V. Pritzker, the case ruled on Friday.

Now the debate rages on: What do the schools not listed in that lawsuit do Monday?

"Obviously we would be welcome to just having options as parents," Hartrich said.

"It's been terrible. I think a lot of parents have no idea that this is even happening," said Jay Bionda, who has a 3-year-old and a 6-year-old in District 101.

His daughter receives extra attention in class.

"She was born premature, so she has some speech issues. Part of the reason why she goes to that school is because they give extra attention like that. She's never been able to see her teachers' mouths while they're speaking," he said.

Pushback for wearing a mask though is not the attention he wants his kids to receive.

"We will send our kids with masks because we don't want our kids to feel the pressure or the emotional trauma that comes along with standing up in front of a crowd.

Meanwhile, a second lawsuit in the works -- waged by parents -- could force even more schools to create a no-mask option.

As for masking outside schools, Pritzker Friday signaled a possible end to the statewide mask mandate soon.

"I believe that we should remove masks and as soon as we possibly can," he said. "And constantly listening to doctors and scientists and encouraging them. When can we do this? What's the right time? What's the right way to do it? And so very hopeful we'll be able to make some announcements about that."

The governor's comment comes with a dramatic drop in new COVID cases, which are down more than 50% in a week.

Nearly 53% of CPS students over 12 are fully vaccinated. More than 90% of CPS teachers are, too.

The following list reflects school policies in the Chicago area as of Monday night: 

MASKS REQUIRED

  • Chicago Public Schools
  • Naperville Community School District 203
  • East Aurora District 131
  • Elgin Area School District U46
  • Indian Prairie School District 204
  • Community High School District 128
  • Township High School District 113
  • Lansing District 158
  • Palatine District 15

MASKS OPTIONAL OR RECOMMENDED

  • Plainfield Schools District 202
  • Lake Forest Districts 67 & 115
  • Barrington District 220
  • Hillsboro School District 3
  • Huntley District 158
  • Lombard Elementary District 44
  • Arlington Heights District 25
  • Joliet Diocese Schools

CLASSES CANCELED, MASKS NOW OPTIONAL

  • Geneva District 304

REMOTE LEARNING, MASKS NOW OPTIONAL

EMERGENCY COMPONENT - LOCAL

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