SPRINGFIELD — Students at scores of districts across the state may be freed from wearing a mask in the classroom, with an Illinois judge ruling Friday that Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s COVID-19 mandate was authorized illegally.
Sangamon County Circuit Judge Raylene Grischow on Friday granted a request from attorney Tom DeVore to temporarily halt the governor’s executive orders on masking and quarantining for schools, finding that the measures are beyond the governor’s authority and deprive students of due process.
"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 in a ruling that affects 146 Illinois school districts, including the public school system in Chicago. "Nonetheless, it is the duty of the Courts to preserve the rule of law and ensure that all branches of government act within the boundaries of the authority granted under the Constitution."
Pritzker had harsh words for the judge's decision and quickly urged the state's attorney general's office to appeal, suggesting the ruling could spark another surge in the virus and force schools to close their doors and revert to online classes.
"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," Pritzker said 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."
Attorney General Kwame Raoul agreed with Pritzker that the ruling would make it more difficult to protect students and school employees from the virus, and said he would appeal.
"This decision sends the message that all students do not have the same right to safely access schools and classrooms in Illinois, particularly if they have disabilities or other health concerns," Raoul said in a statement.
The ruling "prioritizes a relatively small group of plaintiffs who refuse to follow widely-accepted science over the rights of other students, faculty and staff to enter schools without the fear of contracting a virus that has claimed the lives of more than 31,000 Illinois residents — or taking that virus home to their loved ones," Raoul said.
In her ruling, the judge agreed with the parents and teachers who argued that only local health departments, and not the governor or school districts, have the authority to require such measures. The judge also agreed with parents who argued that the state cannot require districts to force staffers to get vaccinated or test weekly "without first providing them due process of law."
The restraining order prevents the state from ordering school districts to require students involved in the lawsuit to wear masks if they object, “except during the terms of lawful order of quarantine issued from their respective health department.” The order also prevents the state from requiring school districts to force school employees who sued to get vaccinated or test weekly if they object, “without first providing them due process of law.”
The ruling leaves local school leaders seeking answers to questions and determining how to proceed.
"District officials are reviewing the judge’s ruling this weekend and will distribute notices as soon as possible as to the extent to which the ruling impacts our school community," Todd Vilardo, superintendent of Charleston schools, said in a prepared statement to the JG-TC. "I am grateful for the patience exercised by our school community as our district navigates potential changes to the COVID-19 guidance for Illinois’ schools. I am also grateful for our school community’s continued immeasurable support throughout the pandemic. While such circumstances have been challenging for everyone, our collective efforts through all of this demonstrate the Charleston Way of caring for each other while respecting diverse perspectives."
Grischow denied DeVore’s request that the lawsuits be given class certification, which if granted, would have extended the ruling to all students at the nearly 170 school districts named in the two lawsuits — one filed against 146 school districts, and a second filed by school employees against 21 school districts.
Although she denied class certification, Judge Grischow pointed out in a footnote to the decision that she had declared the emergency rules at issue from the Illinois Department of Health and Illinois School Board of Education void. “Thus, non-named Plaintiffs and School Districts throughout this State may govern themselves accordingly,” she wrote.
The judge’s ruling means that any school district that attempts to enforce the mask requirement against any student whose parents joined the lawsuit would be held in contempt of court, according to DeVore, who said parents who want the ruling to apply to their children can join the lawsuit.
Illinois' school mask mandate has been in place since early August 2021, just before many students returned to the classroom amid a surge in cases and hospitalizations fueled by the Delta variant.
But it met near-immediate resistance, with more than 50 school districts across the state being placed on probation by the Illinois State Board of Education in late August for defying the mandate. Most eventually came into compliance.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of parents in 146 school districts in Macoupin County in mid-October last year. It was later moved to Grischow's courtroom in Sangamon County.
The state's two major teachers unions, the Illinois Education Association and the Illinois Federation of Teachers, criticized the ruling in statements Friday evening.
“This decision has the potential to shut our schools down, effectively closing our school buildings and perhaps being potent enough to stop in person learning altogether," said IEA President Kathi Griffin.
IFT President Dan Montgomery said the union will "insist that school districts statewide abide by existing agreements on health and safety."
It's not the first pandemic-related case Grischow has ruled on. In December 2020, she tossed out an earlier ruling made by a Clay County judge that said Pritzker did not have the authority to issue emergency orders beyond 30 days. That suit had been brought by state Sen. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, who is now a candidate for governor.
Pritzker told reporters earlier Friday that he was "very hopeful" that mask mandates could be removed soon given the rapid decline in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations following the state's omicron variant surge, though he attributed the drop to stringent mitigations such as indoor masking.
"I believe that we should remove masks as soon as we possibly can," Pritzker said. "I'm constantly listening to the doctors and scientists and encouraging them, 'when can we do this, what's the right time, what's the right way to do it.' And so, very hopeful we can make an announcement about that."
Lee Enterprises reporter Brenden Moore and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Mattoon was one of the districts named in the Austin v. Pritzker lawsuit brought by parents regarding the Gov. J.B Pritzker's mask mandate and the requirement that the districts exclude close contacts from attending school.