Pritzker halts Illinois' school mask mandate with arrival of new CDC guidance

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CHICAGO — Gov. J.B. Pritzker said new federal COVID-19 guidance unveiled Friday will allow the state of Illinois to remove its school mask mandate on Monday, coinciding with the halting of the hotly debated virus mitigation strategy for the general public.

Pritzker also applauded the Illinois Supreme Court, which earlier in the day sent a case challenging the mandate back to a downstate court. The high court had refused to take up the appeal after finding that an order by a Springfield judge that caused chaos and confusion in Illinois schools over masking was no longer in effect.

“I’m gratified that the Supreme Court vacated the lower court’s restraining order, meaning that if a school mask mandate needs to go into effect in the future, we continue to have that authority,” Pritzker said.

“I’m also extremely pleased to say that because the CDC has recommended that masks are needed only in areas of high transmission, the state of Illinois will move forward to remove our school mask mandate, effective Monday,” Pritzker said. “We will recommend that all school districts follow CDC guidance and will update our existing guidance in the coming days.”

The Illinois Supreme Court order issued late Friday found that a Springfield judge’s Feb. 4 order preventing statewide enforcement of the mask mandate should be vacated because a lower appellate court recently found the case to be moot.

It was unclear what impact the high court’s ruling would have on the children of hundreds of parents who sued the governor and Illinois Department of Public Health over the rules, saying that they violated the students’ due process rights.

But with Pritzker’s announcement the state’s mask mandate for schools would end Monday, the legal wrangling could soon become a nonissue.

As of Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is no longer urging masking indoors for the general public in most settings, including schools, in areas where COVID-19 poses a “low” or “medium” risk to the general public and the local health care system.

That currently covers more than three-quarters of Illinois counties, with the entire Chicago area falling into the “low” category. At the “medium” level, it’s recommended that people who are at high risk talk with their doctors about whether they should continue masking or take other precautions, CDC officials said.

The end of the state’s school mask mandate is arriving a week after an appellate court sidelined the governor’s attempt to enforce his COVID-19 mitigation orders for Illinois schools statewide.

Pritzker had appealed a temporary restraining order granted by Sangamon County Circuit Judge Raylene Grischow on Feb. 4 against CPS and scores of other Illinois school districts, but the appellate court dismissed the appeal. The court found that because rules from the Illinois Department of Public Health requiring masking and other COVID-19 protocols had been allowed to expire, the appeal was moot. The governor then appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court.

Earlier Friday, Grischow declined to weigh in on whether Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez was in contempt of court for demanding students either wear a mask or be sent home from school, saying “the policy of (CPS) is not before the court.”

She said she did not have jurisdiction to hear the contempt of court motion against CPS while the higher court appeal was pending. The judge also delayed a ruling on whether roughly 900 parents can join the lawsuit alleging Pritzker’s mask mandate violated students’ due process rights, saying she would issue a decision in the coming weeks.

Chicago resident Brendan Hehir said he was “very disappointed” Martinez was not in Springfield for the court proceedings, and instead, was represented by an attorney for CPS.

“You can’t just universally mask and quarantine students without first offering them due process,” said Hehir, a father of three, who was in court Friday with his two sons, ages 6 and 8.

Hehir’s three children attended classes at their school on the Northwest Side mask-free after Grischow granted a temporary restraining order.

But earlier this month, two CPS parents who are part of the school mask lawsuit filed a petition against the Chicago Board of Education, saying their children were told to wear a mask or leave Mount Greenwood Elementary School on the Southwest Side.

A similar petition was brought against Community High School District 128, which includes Vernon Hills and Libertyville high schools, but was recently dismissed after the school district shifted to a mask optional policy.

While the contempt of court hearing was canceled, Grischow heard arguments Friday on a request from hundreds of parents to join the lawsuit, led by attorney Tom DeVore, who argued the motion alongside attorney Patrick Walsh.

Prior to the governor’s announcement that the state would drop the mask mandate, Assistant Chief Deputy Attorney General Thomas Verticchio argued that DeVore wouldn’t be following the law in his arguments to push for more plaintiffs.

DeVore, who has also recently announced he is running in the June 28 Republican primary for attorney general, suggested a laborious alternative would be to file hundreds of lawsuits on behalf of hundreds of clients.

“What’s the benefit to the governor?” DeVore said at the morning hearing. “Delay.”

Prior to the governor’s announcement late Friday, Martinez sent a letter to CPS parents saying: “Our COVID-19 policies are NOT currently before a judge and we will continue requiring universal masking in our schools.”

“We all look forward to the day when masks are no longer necessary in schools, and we plan to work with our labor and public health partners on the best way to preserve a safe learning environment for all,” he said.

On Wednesday, the board that oversees CPS approved a resolution reiterating its COVID-19 protocols, including universal masking for staff and students, testing for unvaccinated employees and quarantine policies. Board members cited progress with declining case numbers, but said the district is not ready to make masks optional.

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