School mask decision sparks weekend scramble in school districts

A Sangamon County judge’s ruling in a lawsuit over mask mandates in Illinois schools sparked a weekend of scramble and uncertainty as districts consulted with attorneys, officials from the state education and school board members in a flurry of online meetings.

The judge temporarily blocked Governor JB Pritzker’s statewide blackout mandate in nearly 170 school districts that were parties to the lawsuit which depends on whether local districts or the State Board of Education can decide to require masks to be worn by students and staff. Pritzker and Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul have requested an expedited appeal.

The temporary restraining order applies to school districts named in the lawsuit, including Eureka #140, Prairie Central #8, Roanoke Benson #60, Morton #709, El Paso-Gridley #11, Mahomet-Seymour CUSD 3 , Dunlap #323, Metamora Township High School and Metamora Community Consolidated in central Illinois.

The impact on other districts is unclear. Districts such as Lexington, Heyworth, El Paso-Gridley and Mahomet-Seymour have already informed parents that masks are voluntary.

“For those who have not been named (in the lawsuit), it creates some uncertainty and a great deal of consternation about where to go, at least in the short term,” said Mark Jontry, the regional superintendent of schools in Dewitt, Livingston, Logan and McLean counties. Jontry said he was alone in five virtual meetings or multiparty phone calls on Sunday.

Jontry said there is a general belief that those who are not parties to the lawsuit can likely continue to stay the course pending appeal. That’s what Unit 5 is doing. In a message to parents and students on Sunday evening, Unit 5 said masks were still needed.

“We have received multiple messages from parents on all sides of the matter, and we ask for your patience as we navigate this evolving situation. This matter is currently being addressed by the courts, where these types of legal rulings must be decided. In the meantime, our current rules regarding masking requirements and excluding close contacts will remain in place,” Unit 5 told the families.

Illinois State University lab schools (Thomas Metcalf and University High School) have also said they will retain the mask requirement.

“What districts really don’t want to do is bounce between there’s a mandate and there’s no mandate in terms of enforcement,” Jontry said.

Communicate with parents

Meanwhile, families were waiting to hear from school districts about their plans for Monday morning.

The Lexington School District will “move to a mask-optional policy for students and staff, end asymptomatic ‘close contact’ exclusions, and cease mandatory vaccination or testing for staff,” the district said on Facebook Sunday evening. .

“In light of this order, the (Mahomet-Seymour) District is able to transition to recommended but not required masks, which the Board of Education originally voted to do in July 2021,” the superintendent wrote. by Mahomet-Seymour Lindsay. Room. “We will be required to reevaluate the mask-optional policy if the decision is suspended or rescinded. We will be in communication if changes are needed.”

“Masking will be recommended, but not required in (El Paso-Gridley) schools beginning Monday, February 7, 2022,” the EPG District posted on Facebook.

District 87 released a statement on Saturday, saying it was reviewing the judge’s order, then followed up with a communication to parents saying they “will continue to follow the governor’s executive order for all staff students, and that visitors must wear masks on school premises and on school buses.”

Attorney Tom DeVore, who filed the lawsuit, said school systems that want to maintain masking and testing requirements now do so at their own risk — even districts not part of his lawsuit.

“If they’re going to try to get kids who aren’t named in this case to wear masks, they’re breaking the law, according to this judge,” DeVore told WBEZ in Chicago.

Regional Superintendent Jontry said DeVore wasn’t necessarily right. He said education law scholars believe there was ambiguity in the judge’s decision. She denied class-action status to all public school districts in the state, but there was language that could be read to indicate that masks are something that cannot be enforced in any district.

“Lawyers are kind of like, ‘Yeah, okay. It creates a level of uncertainty.’ And that’s the heart of the matter,” Jontry said.

Unit 5 in Bloomington-Normal is not a party to the lawsuit. Unit 5 school board member Jeremy DeHaai has frequently spoken out against the mask mandate and told WGLT ahead of the decision that he agreed with its main demand.

“That’s what I would like us to do, is for a state to allow local control and make the necessary decisions, whether it’s masking, remote learning, whatever needs to be. fact, allows local authorities and districts to make those decisions,” DeHaai said. .

DeHaai said he doesn’t think the mitigations should be immediately thrown out the window. He said his frustration is that there is no discussion of how the districts will eventually get children out of masks.

Teacher unions react

Friday’s order has upset teachers’ unions.

“This decision has the potential to shut down our schools, effectively shut down our school buildings, and perhaps be powerful enough to completely shut down in-person learning,” Illinois Education Association President Kathi Griffin said. on the union’s website.

The IEA represents the teachers of Bloomington District 87.

“Without these (public health) safety measures in place, we risk forcing thousands of teachers, education workers and students to be sick or forced into quarantine,” Griffin said.

Griffin said the decision could further exacerbate a severe staffing shortage.

“The judge’s decision calls into question the safety of schools across the state and we will support all efforts to halt its immediate implementation while the state and district defendants pursue an appeal,” Griffin said.

And Regional Superintendent Mark Jontry said there’s a big potential unintended consequence to the decision for districts that are lifting mask mandates.

“Honestly, do they have to consider remote learning for a while, if they don’t have enough staff who feel they can teach in person in that environment? That’s one of the biggest considerations that currently exists right now, says Jontry.

And Ben Matthews, IEA UniServ director at the Bloomington office of the Illinois Education Association, said the temporary restraining order reinforces that collectively bargained agreements still govern and are enforceable.

“As we move forward, we will review all current agreements we have in place, engage in conversations with the District regarding their plans, and negotiate any decisions – or the impact of those decisions – as appropriate,” said Matthews, who is based in Bloomington. .

Mark Jontry said there were also implications for extra-curricular activities and sports competitions. Jontry said the presumption is that the mask or no-mask rules that apply will be controlled by the home district at each interscholastic event. He said it is possible that districts adhering to mask mandates may cancel events with mask-free or mask-optional districts and that districts will closely monitor this situation.

“I don’t know if they’ve gone that far down the road yet. They’re trying to address this immediate issue. Monday morning is the monthly Illinois High School Association (IHSA) board meeting. a topic of discussion at this board meeting It will be interesting to see if any guidance comes out of the IHSA and/or if they get more clarity on what changes might come from the IDPH versus the current guidelines that IHSA is issuing to schools,” Jontry said.

Jontry said that whatever happens, the ruling will encourage further legal challenges by districts that have so far not challenged the Illinois State Board of Education policy.

Jontry did not anticipate broader challenges to Illinois State Board of Education policy that are unrelated to the pandemic, by school districts arguing for local control. He said the lawsuit’s wording centered on the use of Pritzker’s executive orders.

“That’s where the frustration is. It’s time for the General Assembly to get involved,” Jontry said. “What should the General Assembly potentially seek to more meaningfully codify around policies and procedures when dealing with pandemic issues?”

Indeed, the judge in her decision based part of her ruling on the injunction on the fact that legislators had multiple opportunities to act and failed to do so, thus increasing the legitimacy of challenges to the executive orders of the Governor.

By mid-afternoon Sunday, Unit 5 and District 87 were in a series of meetings to discuss the matter.

The dispute is another example of a society torn over public policy approaches to the pandemic, an echo in responses to WGLT’s social media requests for parental input on mask issues. Two-thirds of the 50 responses were in favor of maintaining mask requirements and one-third expressed the feeling that masks were not helpful or that local districts should have the power to decide policy for their own students.

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