The End of Masks in the Classroom? A New Judgment Impacts Schools Across the State
On Friday, February 7, a judge in Sangamon County, which includes the city of Springfield, issued a temporary restraining order in response to a lawsuit filed by parents against 140 school districts in Illinois. Significantly, the judge found several provisions of the Illinois Department of Public Health’s Emergency Rules to be null and void and has temporarily restrained schools from requiring that students wear masks. In addition, the ruling lifted testing and vaccine mandates for dozens of school districts unless the local health department issues a quarantine order. Though temporary, this decision successfully challenged Governor Pritzker’s Executive Order requiring masks in schools.
In its reasoning, the court concluded that the legislature did not grant either the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) or the State Superintendent the authority to mandate vaccines and tests, continuing that without an emergency order from the Illinois Department of Public Health, “the Governor’s mandate is meaningless and ISBE’s emergency rule exceeds its authority.” The ruling focused on the duty of courts to ensure and maintain that the branches of government act within their power, not exceeding the “boundaries of the authority granted to them under the Constitution.” In addition to issues surrounding an excess of power, the lawsuit also involved the contention of individual rights being violated. Parents who filed the lawsuit alleged that children who are excluded from school based on reasons surrounding objecting to mask wearing and being exposed to an individual with COVID-19 are denied their due process rights.
Responding to news of the judgment, Governor Pritzker expressed his desire to remove the necessity of mask wearing when it is safe to do so, though his office also responded with plans to appeal the decision which was described as “misguided with grave consequences.” Additionally, on Sunday, February 6, the Northern Illinois Public Health Consortium advised that school districts continue to take precautions against the spread of the virus. Despite this, school districts throughout the state began implementing a “mask optional” approach on Monday.
Importantly, while the ruling affects districts across the state of Illinois, Chicago Public Schools are exempt from the repercussions of this decision. Specifically, the judgment states that collective bargaining agreements are still enforceable. As such, CPS is not prohibited from maintaining its COVID-19 mitigating strategies based on its collective bargaining agreement with the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). Following the judgment, the CTU issued a statement in support of CPS’s current guidelines and policies, emphasizing that mask wearing will keep Chicago public schools open.
With new freedom granted to Illinois school districts, mask wearing will begin to become optional, at least for now pending the result of the appeals process initiated by the governor’s office. Only time and future court decisions will tell the fate of mask mandates across the state.
If you have any questions or concerns surrounding the temporary restraining order, please contact the attorneys at Rock Fusco & Connelly, LLC. We will continue to monitor this developing matter and keep you informed.