(Brett Rowland | The Center Square) – Some teacher unions have lashed out in Illinois this week after a judge issued a temporary restraining order halting Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s mask mandate for students and school staff.
Mask rules have created challenges at schools across the country, sparking protests, lawsuits, and contentious school board meetings. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended universal mask use in schools, but most Republican-led states have made masks optional for students since the beginning of the school year with few problems.
Now, many Democratic-led states are following suit, just not yet in Illinois, despite the court ruling.
On Friday, Sangamon County Circuit Court Judge Raylene Grischow “deemed null and void” Pritzker’s emergency rules through the Illinois Department of Public Health concerning COVID-19 mitigations for schools. That ruling sent many of the state’s more than 850 school districts scrambling to come up with new policies. It also gave some students a choice about mask use in school for the first time since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some schools closed Monday to figure out their plans, others went mask optional, and others still required masks, including Chicago Public Schools.
Algonquin-based District 300, one of the state’s largest school districts outside of Chicago, canceled classes on the Monday after the ruling despite initially saying the mask mandate would stay in force. Classes in the district resumed Tuesday with masks required for all students except the 19 District 300 students who were named plaintiffs in the lawsuit. But tensions over the mask mandate were clear Tuesday evening at a school board meeting, where parents were vocally critical of the district’s decision to require masks of students and staff. The meeting ended early after a school board member said the meeting was not safe to continue.
The district, which serves nearly 20,000 students in 26 schools in the suburbs of Chicago, said students who refuse to wear masks will be separated from other students, a tactic some other school districts followed by sending maskless students into gymnasiums or elsewhere.
“Please note that students refusing to wear a mask will be asked to do so or they will be subject to being assigned to an alternative setting and/or disciplinary measures,” Superintendent Susan Harkin said in a message to parents.
D-300’s tactic was mirrored in some other Illinois schools, with maskless students sent to gymnasiums or elsewhere.
The court ruling also enraged teacher unions throughout the state.
Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery called the judge’s ruling a public health threat.
“The Illinois Federation of Teachers is greatly distressed at the judge’s temporary restraining order in this case,” he said in a statement. “Hundreds of thousands of students, teachers, and staff across Illinois are doing their best to remain healthy and keep schools open. 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.”
Illinois Education Association Vice President Al Llorens urged a cautious approach.
“Our students thrive on consistency and the last two years have been anything but consistent. We do not want another disruption to our students’ learning while we are still working to bridge the learning gap created by the pandemic,” he said in a statement after the state appealed Grischow’s decision. “That’s why we believe our school districts should not make any rash decisions changing COVID safety requirements until after this process plays out in our court system.”
Mailee Smith, staff attorney and director of labor policy at Illinois Policy, a nonprofit think-tank, said teacher unions have not made the needs of students a priority.
“Parents learned early on in the pandemic that teachers unions prioritize union bosses’ needs over the needs of parents and students. The battle over COVID safety has really been a battle for power. As the field of medical experts urging the end of mask mandates widens, union leaders are now once again showing their hand,” she said in a statement. “This demonstrates what’s at stake on the Nov. 9 ballot if Amendment 1 passes: permanently cementing this kind of union power over parents and students into the state constitution itself.”
Amendment 1 is a ballot measure that asks voters if collective bargaining rights should be enshrined in the state constitution, allowing government union contracts to override other state laws.
Most Republican-led states have not required masks this school year with few issues.
Some Democrat-led states are moving away from mask mandates in schools. Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, and Oregon announced this week that they will lift mask requirements in schools in the coming weeks.
On Wednesday, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, said parents should decide the mask issue.
“As some school systems continue to ignore the science, concerned parents, and the wellbeing of students, in the coming days my office will be introducing legislation to give parents the final say on masking for their children,” he wrote on Twitter.
In Missouri, Republican Attorney General Eric Schmitt has been taking school districts to court over mask mandates. Last month, he filed motions for temporary restraining orders and preliminary injunctions against three of the 45 school districts he filed lawsuits against over local mask requirements. Missouri isn’t alone with its ban on mask mandates. Florida, Oklahoma, Texas, and Utah have also banned mask requirements, according to Education Week.
In other states, mask mandates have been tossed out by courts, including in Pennsylvania.
Even as some states end mask mandates in schools, other states plan to keep face coverings for students.
On Wednesday, Pritzker, a Democrat, said Illinois’ indoor mask mandate would end Feb. 28, but not for schools.
“Given that schools need more time for community infection rates to drop, for young children to become vaccine eligible, and for more parents to have their kids vaccinated, masks will continue to be required in P-12 school settings unless pending litigation impacts a school,” according to a news release from the governor’s office.
But children have been least affected by COVID-19, with far fewer serious cases and deaths.
Calls for schools to drop mask rules continue. A group of doctors and other professionals called Urgency of Normal said it is time for kids to drop the masks.
“Based on a careful review of all of this evidence, we believe it is time to allow children the same return to normalcy that adults have enjoyed,” the group said in a statement. “Children’s schools, athletics, and activities should be restored to their 2019 norms. Masks should become optional in U.S. schools (we suggest, by Feb. 15), and we can also return to pre-pandemic norms for quarantines: if you are sick, stay home.”