Mask mandates now up to local school districts as Pritzker takes case to state Supreme Court

Chicago Public Schools said it will continue to require face masks.

SHARE Mask mandates now up to local school districts as Pritzker takes case to state Supreme Court
Gov. J.B. Pritzker listens as Dr. Ngozi Ezike, Director of the Illinois Department of Public Health gives a COVID-19 update to reporters in the Blue Room at the Thompson Center, Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file

An Illinois appellate court has dismissed Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s appeal of a downstate judge’s order that invalidated his statewide school mask mandate, dealing a blow to one of the Democratic governor’s key COVID-19 mitigation strategies — and a victory to his Republican rivals bucking against requirements during an ebb in pandemic hospitalizations.

The ruling issued late Thursday by justices in the Fourth District Appellate Court means local school districts can impose their own mask mandates if they want to, but Pritzker administration officials can’t force them to do so, as had been the case since last summer.

Pritzker’s appeal of the controversial order that gutted his school mask mandate was rendered “moot,” the appellate court ruled, because a bipartisan panel of state lawmakers earlier this week rejected an attempt by the Illinois Department of Public Health to re-institute mask rules for classrooms.

The governor’s office said Friday it would work with Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul to take the case to the Illinois Supreme Court, requesting an “expedited review.”

“The Governor is disappointed in the appellate court’s decision and concerned for the health of those in schools — particularly vulnerable children and adults — and the ability to continue in-person learning,” Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said in a statement. “In the meantime, the Governor urges everyone to continue following the doctors’ advice to wear masks so students can remain safely learning in classrooms, and is encouraged that the court made it clear that school districts can continue to keep their own mitigations in place.”

Raoul maintained that Pritzker’s mask mandate still applies to families from school districts that weren’t involved in the lawsuit that sparked the mask melodrama. Thomas DeVore, the Metro East attorney behind the anti-masking effort, urged more families to file legal challenges and “finish this through to the end.”

Officials from Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union agreed masks would stay on in city classrooms.

“These safety measures are what have allowed us to provide our students with the in-person learning environment they need throughout this school year,” CPS officials said. “We will continue to follow these protocols until such time as our public health partners advise us that restrictions can be safely lifted.”

Barring a reversal from the state’s highest court, faces will remain bare in many suburbs and downstate communities that have been roiled by protests on both sides of the polarizing mask debate since Sangamon County Judge Raylene Grischow issued her Feb. 4 ruling against Pritzker’s mandate.

That order came in response to the lawsuit filed by a group of parents and students representing more than 100 school districts. Grischow wrote that Pritzker’s mandate was issued “unlawfully even in the pursuit of desirable ends” of containing the spread of the coronavirus.

Pritzker and Raoul immediately appealed the decision, even though the governor announced he’d lift his indoor mask mandate for the general public Feb. 28 — and that he expected to lift the school mandate in “a matter of weeks” after that.

Pritzker has said that even though COVID-19 hospitalizations are at the lowest level recorded in over three months — with 1,590 beds occupied as of Thursday night — he wants to assert the ability to impose another mask mandate in case of another surge.

Earlier this week, the state Department of Public Health asked the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules — an oversight panel of Democrats and Republicans tasked with reviewing rules made by state agencies — to re-up their emergency rules on masking in schools. That panel rejected the request Tuesday by a vote of 9-0.

Republicans in the General Assembly — including nine who were removed from the statehouse floor Thursday for refusing to mask up — have hailed that decision and Friday’s appellate court ruling as affirmations that the days of Pritzker’s pandemic restrictions are numbered.

“Pritzker is failing to accept defeat as his ego and desire for power continue to lead him through his decision-making process,” Illinois Senate Republican Leader Dan McConchie said in a statement. “It’s clear that the Governor can’t stand the thought of loosening his grip on ruling unilaterally through the pandemic, thus he is willing to go to every extent possible to maintain that power.”

State Rep. Keith Wheeler, the North Aurora Republican who co-chairs the bipartisan committee that shot down the state’s request to re-institute masking rules, reiterated the longstanding GOP complaint that further pandemic measures should be discussed in the General Assembly, not handed down from the governor’s office.

“If the governor wants to keep up this effort, there’s are more effective ways. Take up a bill. Hold a hearing where we can discuss these issues. We have been ignored in the General Assembly,” Wheeler said.

Pritzker’s five Republican challengers in the governor’s race summarily cheered the appellate decision as evidence that the incumbent has overstepped his executive power.

“Pritzker is a failure and I will continue fighting against his tyrannical mandates and empty threats while standing up for the rights of parents, students, small businesses, and every Illinoisan who has suffered under his unconstitutional and unilateral mandates,” Xenia state Sen. Darren Bailey said in a statement.

Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin, the state GOP’s establishment pick, called the appellate ruling “a win for parents and schools across our state who have been victims of Pritzker’s unilateral control over the last two years.”

Bull Valley businessman Gary Rabine said the court ruled “once again that [Pritzker] can’t tell parents how to raise their kids.” Former state Sen. Paul Schimpf, R-Waterloo, said it “places the authority for education decisions back where it belongs—in the hands of parents and local school boards.” Downstate venture capitalist Jesse Sullivan said the appellate justices sided with parents over a governor who “will stop at nothing to ensure he alone controls the lives of our schoolchildren.”

Raoul argued the opposite, saying the latest decision “has added to the confusion” around masking.

The appellate decision ruled that Grischow’s order “in no way restrains school districts from acting independently from the executive orders or the IDPH in creating provisions addressing COVID-19.”

The Illinois Education Association applauded “the clarity brought forth” in that determination allowing local districts to impose their own mandates.

“Mitigation efforts are not political. They are put in place to keep students and school staff from getting sick, or from bringing home COVID-19 to loved ones who may be susceptible,” IEA President Kathi Griffin said in a statement.

Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery said districts should “implement their own safety measures around COVID-19.”

“As cases continue to decline, discussions about removing these mitigations must be based on good public health decisions,” Montgomery said in a statement. “Medical science tells us that vaccinations, masking, and proper ventilation have been the best ways to maintain health in schools.”

Contributing: Taylor Avery

Court opinion not displaying properly? Read it here.

The Latest
Too often, insurers deny coverage for genetic tests that have been established as a standard of modern health care and can have a significant impact on people’s lives.
Her boyfriend’s family watched him pop the question, and woman’s aunt is hurt that she wasn’t invited too.
Some Democrats issued statements of strong support for the vice president, others stayed mum, for now — with just weeks to go before the Democratic National Convention kicks off in Chicago on Aug. 19.
The band is now making money on the road, a turn that vocalist Katie Gavin calls ‘a game-changer.’