Downstate judge prohibits school districts from requiring masks in classroom

Under Sangamon County Circuit Court Judge Raylene Grischow’s temporary restraining order, several other COVID-19 mitigation measures enacted by Gov. J.B. Pritzker were deemed “null and void.”

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A man adjusts a boy’s face mask as they arrive at Jordan Community Public School, 7414 N. Wolcott Ave., in Rogers Park on the North Side, Wednesday morning, Jan. 12, 2022.

A man adjusts a boy’s face mask as they arrive at Jordan Community Public School, 7414 N. Wolcott Ave., in Rogers Park in January.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

A Downstate judge on Friday issued a temporary restraining order that prevents dozens of school districts across the state from requiring students to wear masks in classrooms.

The order by Sangamon County Circuit Judge Raylene Grischow also deemed “null and void” several other COVID-19 mitigation efforts enacted through emergency orders issued by Gov. J.B. Pritzker — among them, one issued in September mandating COVID-19 vaccinations for school personnel.

Grischow’s temporary restraining order was issued in response to a lawsuit by a group of parents and teachers. Oral arguments were heard in January.

“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,” said Pritzker in a statement. “This shows yet again that the mask mandate and school exclusion protocols are essential tools to keep schools open and everyone safe.”

The governor called on the Illinois attorney general’s office to draft an appeal immediately, saying the judge’s decision restrains the state from enforcing safety measures to protect students and staff from COVID-19. Mask mandates have been widely supported by the Chicago Teachers Union and local education advocates.

Grischow’s ruling indicated the state was acting outside the rule of law.

“This court acknowledges the tragic toll the COVID-19 pandemic has taken, not only on this state but throughout the nation and globe,” Grischow wrote. “There is no doubt that the public has a strong interest in stopping the spread of this virus but such does not allow our government ‘to act unlawfully even in the pursuit of desirable ends.’”

The ruling would impact 146 school districts across the state, including Chicago Public Schools.

CPS did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the judge’s decision.

Angel, a CPS student, checks in at a screener at Richardson Middle School at 6018 S Karlov Ave in West Lawn, Monday, March 8, 2021.

Angel, a CPS student, checks in at a screener at Richardson Middle School at 6018 S. Karlov Ave., in March 2021.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul said he would to defend “Pritzker’s actions to mitigate the spread of COVID-19” and indicated he is seeking an expedited appeal from the Fourth District Illinois Appellate Court.

“The court’s misguided decision is wrong on the law, demonstrates a misunderstanding of Illinois emergency injunction proceedings and has no relation to the record that was before the court,” Raoul said.

Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery issued a statement saying the union “is greatly distressed” by the judge’s decision.

“We believe what the judge ordered today is legally faulty and a threat to public health and, most importantly, a threat to keeping Illinois schools open for in-person learning.Our children and their families need certainty and some normalcy at school, not legal wrangling managed by a small minority of citizens.”

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