Lifting Mask Mandates: How Districts, Parents, and Students May Struggle to Comply

Katia Cortes

Associate Editor

Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2023

On Friday, February 4, 2022, a judge in Sangamon County, Illinois issued a ruling that prohibited mask mandates for school districts across the state. The ruling followed a lawsuit filed by parents from Peoria-area schools against 140 school districts, the governor, the Illinois State Board of Education superintendent, and the director of the Illinois Department of Public Health. The lawsuit challenged mask mandates and other COVID-19 procedures implemented by Governor J.B Pritzker as COVID-19 grew rampant. The ruling exposes the difficulties in implementing and complying with COVID-19 safety measures as schools return back to in-person learning.

The lawsuit

In October 2021, a group of Illinois parents filed a class-action lawsuit to eradicate the mask mandate in public schools. The lawsuit followed Governor Pritzker’s state-wide mask mandate issued on August 26, 2021, as schools prepared to return to in-person learning and COVID-19 cases were on the rise. The lawsuit demanded an end to mask mandates and questioned the ability of schools to deny in-person learning to students who do not have orders to quarantine. Additionally, the parents alleged that there was no due process in the state-wide mask mandate.

The ruling

The ruling of Judge Grischow for the Seventh Judicial Circuit in Sangamon County prohibits the governor, Board of Education, and Department of Public Health from mandating masks in public schools. Additionally, the State cannot require vaccinations or proof of negative COVID-19 tests for visitors and staff. Another important change to prior protocols is that schools cannot refuse admittance to teachers and students who are close contacts with a positive COVID-19 person without ‘due process’ of the law. The Judge acknowledged the gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic and the interest in stopping the spread of the virus. However, the Judge reasoned that those reasons do not allow the State to “act unlawfully” to pursue “desirable ends.” The Judge found that parents and their children would suffer irreparable injury if the restraining order was not issued and mask mandates continued.

The Judge reasoned that citizens have a due process right to object COVID-19 testing, vaccination, or quarantining when they are a close contact of someone infected with COVID-19. This due process right protects staff, parents, and students from being excluded from schools for not wearing a mask, lack of vaccination, or close proximity to someone infected with COVID-19.

Why compliance may be difficult

Due to the polarized opinions surrounding the mask mandate, school districts across the State have taken very different approaches in light of the Judge’s decisions. Some districts canceled school on Monday, February 7, in order to decide how to proceed. Others have continued to enforce masks and follow CDC guidelines. Some districts are requiring masks until they can survey parents and see what the majority opinion is. Others decided to consult with their attorneys to see what their legal options are and how to best comply with the new ruling. Chicago Public Schools will continue to enforce masks and continue to demand that the City of Chicago provide masks for everyone and enforce mandates. Governor J.B Pritzker opposed the judge’s decision and announced the State’s plans to appeal the decision. On February 17th, 2021, the Fourth District Appellate Court rejected the appeal. Legal action has already been threatened by parents to school districts who continue to require masks.

As a result of the different approaches taken by districts, the CDC’s guidelines, and the State’s insistence on enforcing mask mandates for public safety, compliance with the judge’s ruling has caused a lot of uncertainties. Schools, educators, parents, and students on both sides of the argument are confused on how to comply with both state laws and the judge’s ruling. Some parents are worried that COVID-19 will spread to their children who they have fought to keep safe from the virus, while others celebrate the return to normalcy.

Districts have warned that “multiple interpretations of the ruling and the status of the State mandates” will cause disruption in learning and the overall health and safety of school communities. Considering that most public schools across the country have closed, switched to e-learning, and then opened throughout the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, the constant change in school environments for school children and educators will continue to affect learning. With the State’s plans to appeal the decision, uncertainty and change in procedures may continue to affect school children for the foreseeable future.