A temporary restraining order issued Friday by Sangamon County Circuit Court Judge Raylene Grischow has reduced schools' ability to require masks and vaccinations.
The order was the result of several lawsuits brought by Greenville attorney Thomas DeVore on behalf of several hundred parents and teachers from around the state.
The restraining order, which went into effect Friday afternoon, voided emergency rules from the Illinois Board of Education requiring regular testing or proof of vaccination from school staff. It also voids rules from the Illinois Department of Public Health outlining a school's obligation to "exclude" students from school who have confirmed cases of COVID-19 or are a "close contact" to someone with COVID-19.
The rules stemmed from a Sep. 17 executive order from Pritzker outlining the now-voided requirements.
“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 late Friday.
The judge's order also blocks the nearly 170 school districts named in DeVore's lawsuits from enforcing mask requirements and exclusion rules for students and staff as well as vaccination and testing requirements for school staff without "due process."
"If the Legislature was of the opinion that the public health laws as written were not satisfactory to protect public health from COVID, it has had adequate opportunity to change the law since March 2020," wrote Grischow in her 29-page ruling.
The local school districts named in the parents' lawsuit include Springfield Public School District 186 and Ball-Chatham School District 5 along with Carrollton, Mount Pulaski, Petersburg PORTA, Jacksonville, North Mac, Carlinville and Staunton.
Four District 186 teachers were among plaintiffs in the second lawsuit. It included teachers from North Mac and Staunton school districts.
Kimberly Smoot, a family and consumer science teacher at Springfield High School, said she was uplifted by the judge's ruling.
"It means I can make my own decision about whether to wear a mask on Monday or not," Smoot said Friday. "All along, it was always about my rights and my freedoms being taken away, much more so than anything.
"I’m just thrilled the judge agreed with us and issued the TRO. I guess it just says that the judge understands where we’re coming from when we say we just want our due process and not a blanket ‘you have to do this no matter what.’"
Kadence Koen, a math and business teacher at Southeast High School, was one of the other District 186 teachers who filed suit.
Koen was on unpaid leave from the district from Sept. 21 to Nov. 17 because she refused to disclose if she was vaccinated or submit to testing. Koen, who cited the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act, later submitted her vaccination card and returned to teaching at Southeast on Nov. 19.
Friday's decision, said Illinois Education Association president Kathi Griffin, has the potential to stop in person learning altogether.
"The judge’s ruling today calls into question the safety of schools across the state and we will support all efforts to stop its immediate implementation while state and district defendants pursue an appeal," Griffin said in a statement. "Keeping learning and working conditions safe inside schools is imperative to keep our communities safe and our school buildings open for in person learning. "
The governor, DeVore said, was creating "workarounds around the law and trying to take people's rights away. The judge acknowledged that."
In addition to the restraining order, Grischow also denied motions from DeVore in two class-action lawsuits, one on behalf of teachers and another on behalf of parents.
Grischow denied to certify the classes at the center of the lawsuits on the basis that several requirements for a class action had not been met.
Grischow left open the possibility for new motions to certify the class to be filed in both cases.
"Could we ask for it later?" said DeVore. "We certainly could, but I think that's going to be remedied sooner rather than later with a mass joinder of people from across the state."
A joinder is a process of adding parties to a lawsuit. DeVore said he is optimistic that more people will join his efforts following the judge's order.
The original 11-count complaint filed on behalf of parents sought injunctions to stop school districts around the state from requiring masks or excluding students from school based on whether they've been exposed to COVID-19.
The complaint was brought against 140 school districts as well as the governor and heads of the state department of health and board of education.
The class-action suit was brought forward by DeVore on behalf of teachers.
Grischow cited several reasons for her denials. In the lawsuit brought forth on behalf of parents, she found that parents do not uniformly object to mask mandates in schools, which calls into question whether it should be a class-action lawsuit.
"There is a stark division of opinions among the members of the proposed class... specifically, the conflicting interests among those class members who seek mask requirements for students and teachers," Grischow wrote.
In the case concerning teachers, Grischow similarly found that differences of opinion among teachers precluded the lawsuit.
"The Court is also aware of educators on both sides of these issues," she wrote.
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Grischow also found that DeVore had not sufficiently proven himself to be "adequate representation" for a class action lawsuit in both lawsuits.
"The Court is unaware if counsel has handled any prior class action litigation or if he has any experience in this particular area," wrote Grischow in both cases. "The Court also does not know if counsel can undertake the financial responsibility of paying for an executing direct individual notice to each of the individuals he seeks to represent."
DeVore has taken on several high-profile cases related to the state's COVID-19 mitigations, including one brought by gubernatorial candidate and state Sen. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, challenging Pritzker's use of executive orders relating to the pandemic.
Grischow was also the judge who rejected that lawsuit.
Reporter Steven Spearie contributed to this story.
This article originally appeared on State Journal-Register: Illinois school mask mandate temporarily blocked by courts