New Trier High School, Wilmette Public Schools and Avoca District 37 will not change their masking policies following a Central Illinois judge’s ruling on Friday, Feb. 4.
Sangamon County Circuit Court Judge Raylene Grischow issued a temporary restraining order on Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s school mask mandate — as well as other imposed COVID-19 mitigations — in response to a lawsuit filed by parents and teachers representing dozens of school districts across the state.
Neither New Trier District 203, Wilmette D39 nor Avoca D37 were among the nearly 150 districts named in the lawsuit. Winnetka District 36 and Glencoe District 35 were listed as defendants and are moving to mask-optional policies.
Following the ruling, Pritzker quickly announced plans to challenge. Ill. Attorney General Kwame Raoul will reportedly seek an “expedited appeal” in the state’s fourth district court.
New Trier District 203 Superintendent Dr. Paul Sally announced via email on Sunday, Feb. 6, that the district will still require masks for students, staff members and visitors inside of district buildings — staying true to a resolution passed by the New Trier Board of Education in January.
“After discussing this with our lawyers, we have confirmed the court’s ruling does not preclude the school from enforcing the resolution passed by New Trier’s Board of Education in January to continue our mitigation efforts, including masking,” Sally wrote in the email.
At its Jan. 18 meeting, the New Trier School Board approved a resolution in anticipation of a decision by Grischow. The resolution states the district’s commitment to universal masking and other COVID-19 mitigations in order to protect in-person learning.
Wilmette Public Schools D39 and Avoca D37 also cited their absence from the lawsuit as a reason to maintain its universal-masking policy. According to messages on their websites (Wilmette | Avoca), the districts expect all teachers and students to remain masked inside district buildings “for the near future.”
In their messages, both New Trier and Wilmette 39 mentioned the development of an “off ramp” to mitigation efforts, such as universal masking, as COVID-19 conditions improve.
“We will continue with our current mitigation measures for the near future pending additional information and evaluation of options for adjustments and increased local decision-making,” the D39 statement says, adding that that the district is developing a comprehensive plan to include an “off ramp” to withdraw some COVID-19 mitigations.
Winnetka Public Schools District 36 and Glencoe Public Schools D35 were named as defendants in the lawsuit and sent emails to parents Sunday, Feb. 6, that says masks will be optional but recommended for students while they are inside of school buildings.
“We believe we are equipped to make this change while continuing to protect the safety of students and staff,” D36’s message reads.
In the Glencoe 35 email, officials urged parents to speak with their children about respect for other students.
“As this change in practice will be a transition for all, we are committed to respecting all students, whether they choose to wear a mask or not,” the message reads. “Teaching and learning in a community of belonging will remain the focus in our classrooms.”
Some private local schools will also continue universal masking under the directive of the Archdiocese of Chicago. In an email to parents, obtained by The Record, the diocese cited Pritzker and Raoul’s appeal and wrote that it will not change masking policy until the case results in a final decision.
Local schools governed by the archdiocese include Sacred Heart and Faith, Hope and Charity in Winnetka; and St. Joseph-Francis Xavier in Wilmette.
“Because changing our policies back and forth would create confusion and disruption in our schools, we will continue the current mask policy for now,” the archdiocese wrote in the email.
Universal masking has been utilized by schools across Chicagoland since the onset of the 2020-21 school year. Pritzker mandated masking in schools to start this school year, 2021-22.
Shortly after, attorney Tom DeVore filed a lawsuit in Macoupin County on behalf of families and teachers across Illinois. The lawsuit contended that students and teachers could not be forced to wear masks because that would be a “quarantine” or “modified quarantine” under the Illinois Department of Public Health Act, and only a the IDPH or other public health department could issue a quarantine order.
Judge Grischow ruled Friday that Pritzker outstepped his authority by issuing the school-masking mandate, which Grischow opined required school-district compliance without due process. She called Pritzker’s mask mandate a “type of evil” that “the law was intended to constrain.”
Raoul said Grischow’s decision is “misguided” and it does not serve all.
“This decision sends a message that all students do not have the same right to safety access schools and classrooms in Illinois, particularly if they have disabilities or other health concerns,” Raoul wrote in a statement. “The court’s misguided decision is wrong on the law, demonstrates a misunderstanding of Illinois emergency injunction proceedings and has no relation to the record before the court.
“It prioritizes a relatively small group of plaintiffs who refuse to follow widely accepted science.”
New Trier 203, Wilmette D39, Avoca D37 and the Chicago archdiocese said in their statements that the state’s appeal influenced their decisions to stand pat with their current masking policies.
“We need stability in our COVID mitigation efforts since the state has already moved for a stay of the Judge’s order — a move that if granted could mean the governor’s school mask order would remain in effect in all schools,” Sally wrote in his email. “This action could occur within a matter of days. We also understand that an expedited appeal will be filed on Monday and ruled upon by the appellate court in the next two weeks.”
Spearheaded by variants (Delta and Omicron) of the virus, COVID-19 transmission again spiked over the past two months. The winter surge culminated with local positivity rates eclipsing 16 percent and pandemic-high case counts of hundreds a day in early January.
The surge has slowed, however, and New Trier Township communities (Wilmette, Winnetka, Glencoe, Kenilworth and Northfield) are seeing far fewer COVID cases per day (32.4 as of Feb. 2) than were recorded four weeks ago (150 on Jan. 12), and the average positivity rate has fallen to 4.62 percent on Feb. 2.
The surge’s disruption in the classroom has also waned. Many districts, including New Trier 203, tested students and staff post-winter break and recorded significant rises in COVID cases. New Trier, for instance, reached 371 reported cases among students and staff on Jan. 7. That number was down to 13 on Wednesday, Feb. 3.
According to New Trier’s COVID dashboard, 93 percent of New Trier staff members and 92 percent of students are fully vaccinated.
Like with many districts, New Trier officials have regularly heard from parents criticizing universal masking with a push to make masking optional. At times, those interactions have become confrontational. Sally requested support from district families in his message to parents on Sunday.
“I am asking for your support, patience, and cooperation while we seek stability for our students and continue our work on this comprehensive plan,” he said. “We have been in a pandemic that has required our collective action to keep our school and community safe.
“Our plan moving forward must ensure our most vulnerable students, staff, and family members can be protected, while understanding that COVID numbers are improving and COVID variants will likely be with us for many years.”
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