Illinois court strikes down state’s school mask mandate

A challenge to a public school mask mandate issued by the Illinois Department of Public Health was challenged last year in state court. The plaintiffs in the case scored at least a temporary victory on Friday when a Sangamon County judge granted a temporary restraining order on the mandate on their behalf. The ruling applies to all school districts named in the combined lawsuits, including many of the largest districts in the Chicago area which were named in the lawsuit. In addition to the mask mandate, the ruling also prevents these schools from forbidding physical entry to students and staff members who have been in close contact with others who have tested positive for COVID. The Governor’s office immediately appealed the ruling, so this may still turn out to be a temporary victory for the plaintiffs. (CBS Chicago)

A downstate judge has granted a temporary restraining order in favor of a group that sued to end COVID-19 mask mandates in Illinois public school districts.

Sangamon County Judge Raylene DeWitte Grischow’s ruling came down at 4:45 p.m. Friday. In addition to finding in favor of those challenging school mask mandates, the ruling also comes out against schools forbidding students and staff from coming into school buildings if they are close contacts of positive COVID-19 cases.

The order does not name specific school districts, but in a footnote, it says the emergency rules on mask mandates and other mitigations for schools issued by the Illinois Department of Public Health are “null and void.”

You can read the full ruling here. The judge took pains to acknowledge the damage caused by the pandemic and the obligation of the government to take reasonable measures to promote public health and safety. But the ruling also notes that there are limits to executive authority even during an emergency and such a condition does not allow the state government “to act unlawfully even in the pursuit of desirable ends.”

One of the potentially confusing footnotes in the ruling notes that some of the plaintiffs listed their local school districts as defendants in the lawsuit rather than the Board of Education for the district. Since the board is setting the rules, those cases were determined to be improperly filed and the plaintiffs’ attorneys were given 14 days to add the school boards as defendants.

Another footnote concludes that only the specific districts cited in the combined series of lawsuits were affected by the injunction. As a result, the judge ruled that any districts not named in the ruling “may govern themselves accordingly.”

The response from Governor Pritzker’s office carried a threatening tone to it. The statement initially said that the State Attorney General would immediately be appealing the order to the Fourth District Illinois Appellate Court. But the Governor then went on to say in the press release, “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.”

In other words, Pritzker is saying that if the courts find against his mandates, he’s going to shut the schools down again and send the students back to remote learning. Given the current mood of many of the nation’s families when it comes to continued school closures, it should be interesting to see what such a decision would do to his favorability ratings and his chances of being elected to another term in November.

Of course, none of this will matter if the Fourth District sides with the Governor and strikes down the injunction this week. And that’s happened with similar challenges in the past, so it can’t be ruled out as a possibility. As with all of these COVID mandates, the matter likely won’t be settled until the state supreme court has it dropped in its lap.

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