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Illinois Board of Ed defends punishment over mask mandate violations

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A panel of state lawmakers is asking the Illinois State Board of Education to clarify the process of punishing schools that don’t follow Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s COVID-19 mask mandate.

“You should have due process in place for all schools, all parents who are invested in these schools, whether public or private, and most importantly, the children that attend,” Republican Sen. John Curran of Downers Grove said at Tuesday’s hearing of the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules.

ISBE defended its authority to revoke a school system’s recognition status for failing to comply with the mask requirement, a move that means loss of access to state funding and the ability to participate in Illinois High School Association and Illinois Elementary School Association athletic competitions. Nine Illinois schools are “nonrecognized” and four school districts are on probation as of Monday because of mask disobedience, according to the most recent state data available online.

Kristen Kennedy, a deputy legal officer for ISBE, said the state agency “is relying on the court’s” siding with Pritzker in his lawsuit last year against school systems in three Illinois counties.

“The final order came out in December of 2020, and the court in (its decision) found that the governor’s executive orders requiring schools to comply with certain health measures associated with in-person instruction, including requiring face coverings at schools and guidance issued jointly by ISBE and (the Illinois Department of Public Health) detailing those measures, were lawfully issued and enforceable,” Kennedy said at Tuesday’s hearing.

State Superintendent of Education Carmen Ayala warned local district leaders last month that noncompliance with Pritzker’s executive order requiring universal indoor masking in schools “is not an option.” In her letter, she said a district would have “multiple opportunities” to comply with the mandate. A district would first have its recognition status changed to “on probation” and be asked to submit a corrective action plan, Ayala wrote. Failure to do so would lead to nonrecognition.

Curran on Tuesday pointed to Timothy Christian Schools, an Elmhurst school that briefly appeared on ISBE’s noncompliance list last month, but had its status restored as “recognized” days later.

“What due process was Timothy Christian afforded in a decision that was made the same day to pull the recognition status?” Curran said.

“ISBE has a few pending lawsuits against it related to masking, including the enforcement, and we are unable to answer certain questions related to the pending litigation,” Kennedy said.

Curran said “it’s not surprising” that ISBE is “now dragged into court, again, because this, on its face, is a very heavy-handed tactic that does not afford any due process.”

An ISBE representative did not immediately return a Tribune request for comment on the lawsuits the agency is facing related to the mask requirement.

The Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, meanwhile, approved a measure Tuesday recommending ISBE propose additional amendments “expanding and clarifying the school recognition status to include a better-defined process prior to the revocation of recognition.” The committee is asking ISBE for an update within 30 days.

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