Masks on? Masks off?

State mask mandate tested in downstate court sends school districts around the state scrambling for answers


Katie Kempff

Students working in the LRC during an early release period. Some are wearing masks, while others choose to go mask-less.

Since March of 2020, buildings throughout District 303 have required masks for all indoor activities. It has been years since East students and staff attended in-person school without masks.
However, after a February 4 ruling by a downstate judge which suspended mask mandates across Illinois, mask requirements in the district have now changed.
According to an email sent out by District 303 on the evening of Sunday, February 6, “Beginning on Tuesday, February 8, District 303 is recommending but not requiring mask usage for all students and staff members.”
The email highly recommends students and staff members to continue wearing masks in light of current COVID-19 transmission rates in the community. It also highlights a number of additional changes in the COVID-19 mitigation policies across the district. These changes include: a halting of contact tracing protocols, no more excluding of close contacts, voluntary return to school after a close contact, and no more weekly testing for unvaccinated staff members.
Some of the protocols which will remain in place are: isolation and exclusion for students and staff who test positive, voluntary SHIELD testing, and masks on school-based transportation.
These changes follow a ruling from Sangamon County Circuit Judge Raylene Grischow, who ruled to temporarily suspend Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s executive orders mandating masks and quarantine protocols for schools, according to a February 6 article by the Chicago Tribune. This meant that more than 140 districts–all of which were named defendants in the lawsuit–had to individually create new requirements and regulations for masks and quarantining.
District 303’s decision to remove the mask requirement and change other protocols was made at a closed emergency meeting of the school board on Sunday, February 6. According to the Kane County Chronicle on February 7, school board President Jillian Barker gave a statement after the emergency meeting.
“Given the current rates of transmission in our community, District 303 highly recommends that students and staff members continue to wear masks as a mitigation strategy to lessen the spread of COVID-19 in our schools,” she said, according to the same Chronicle article. “As a community, we are nearing a time when declining cases will allow us to return to a sense of normalcy. We ask that everyone works together to continue to support the safety of our students.”
In the Sunday evening email, District 303 also declared Monday, February 7 as an “emergency day” to “implement and respond” to the new requirements. This day will be made up as an extra day at the end of the school year in May.
According to an article by ABC5 Chicago, Pritzker spoke out about the Sangamon county ruling at a weekend press conference. He called the ruling “out of step with the vast majority of legal analysis,” and said that it cultivated chaos for students, families, staff members, and administrators.
Pritzers also noted at this press conference that he has directed the Illinois Attorney general, Kwame Raoul, to work on overturning Judge Grischow’s ruling as soon as possible, according to the same article by ABC5 Chicago.
District 303 commented on this appeal in the February 6 email, stating that the district will “be required to return to universal masking and comply with the executive order(s) or IDPH/ISBE requirements in effect at that time” if the stay filed by the attorney general is ordered or the appellate court overturns the Sangamon ruling.