Downstate judge considering bid to halt COVID-19 mandates for Illinois schools

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Fresh off a round of school closures driven by the omicron variant, Illinois school districts could soon be facing more upheaval as litigation challenging Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s mask mandate and other COVID-19 protocol lands before a downstate judge.

Sangamon County Circuit Judge Raylene Grischow is expected to rule soon on a request to temporarily halt the governor’s executive orders on masking and quarantining for schools while she considers a lawsuit from about 700 parents who allege the measures were enacted without due process for students and their families.

The judge heard arguments in Springfield this week on the request from attorney Tom DeVore on behalf of parents suing the governor and more than 140 Illinois school districts. DeVore is also representing a group of Illinois teachers suing the state and 21 school districts in a separate lawsuit targeting the state’s requirement that school employees either receive the COVID-19 vaccine or test weekly.

“What we’re asking is, if children are going to be required to wear masks … before it goes on, they are given the right to due process,” said DeVore, who also argued against the state’s policy requiring close contacts of children who have tested positive to stay home from school.

“If there’s an exclusion from school, before a child is told, ‘get out of here,’ they have the right to due process,” he said.

Opposing the request for a temporary restraining order were attorneys for districts including Chicago Public Schools, which recently resumed classroom instruction after a showdown with its powerful teachers’ union, and Illinois Assistant Chief Deputy Attorney General Thomas Verticchio.

While officials with Chicago Public Schools declined to comment on the lawsuit, the leader of one suburban school district expressed concerns about the impact of a ruling that could threaten local districts’ ability to require their own virus mitigation measures.

In a Thursday letter to parents, Barrington School District 220 Superintendent Robert Hunt said the district would keep its current COVID-19 mitigation strategies in place until there is a ruling from the judge, which is not expected until Jan. 28 at the earliest.

But if the ruling were to overturn both the state and local school board’s authority to require mitigations and also recognizes the complaint as a class-action lawsuit, “Barrington 220 will be in a position in which it cannot enforce masks in school for students or staff members,” Hunt said.

“If this were to occur, due to the current high transmission rates, Barrington 220 will continue to strongly encourage our students, staff and community to wear masks in schools and will evaluate other measures to increase social distancing in an attempt to prevent the spread of COVID,” Hunt said.

If the ruling were to overturn the “authority of the state and that of local school boards to require mitigations, there would likely be an immediate appeal in which the judge or the appellate court could order a stay and keep current mitigations in place,” Hunt said.

“If this were to happen, or if the judge’s ruling upholds the governor’s mask mandate, Barrington 220 will continue to adhere to universal masking inside our school buildings,” he said.

Pritzker shared his frustration with DeVore’s latest COVID-19 lawsuits during a stop in the city’s Bronzeville neighborhood Thursday, saying he is “always disappointed to hear about people who are working against and taking away ... frankly people’s freedom from this virus.”

“That’s what we’re looking to give people, their freedom from the virus. These people are holding us back. They’re going to close schools as a result if they were to win. Small businesses will close if they win. We have to fight for them,” Pritzker said.

But parents who are part of DeVore’s lawsuit, including Gracia Livie, a Naperville mother of four, say the state’s rules have been a disaster for countless children, including Livie’s 6-year-old daughter, who has cerebral palsy.

An initial request for a medical exemption that would allow her daughter to attend school without a mask was initially denied by Naperville Community Unit School District 203 before later being granted with support from the family’s doctor, Livie said.

“It took way too much effort. ... This lawsuit was the next step, so I wanted to put our names on it,” said Livie, who is among those suing District 203, in an interview following Thursday’s court proceedings.

“It’s time for the needle to move. ... Our point is, does a school have a right to be indefinitely authorized to cover a child’s face?” she said.

Attorney Kathleen Gibbons, who represents Valley View Community Unit School District 365 in the lawsuit, challenged DeVore’s contention that the mask mandate is causing “irreparable harm” to students, along with the notion that children infected with the virus are unlikely to become gravely ill.

“Valley View School District stands here pretty much alone, because we lost a 15-year-old athlete with no underlying health conditions within 72 hours of her being positive and showing the first symptoms of COVID,” Gibbons said. “That, your honor, is irreparable harm.”

Officials with Illinois’ two largest teachers unions also expressed concerns about the potential impact of the lawsuits, including Illinois Education Association President Kathi Griffin, who said schools could be forced to shut down if the mask mandate is overturned.

“Without masks, the virus, especially the highly contagious omicron variant, will run wild, forcing thousands and thousands of our school employees and students into quarantine and will, in effect, close our school buildings down and perhaps be potent enough to stop learning altogether,” Griffin said.

“The science is there: Masking, along with vaccines, testing, social distancing and quarantining, are the best ways to protect against the virus,” she said.

In a pair of amicus briefs filed with the court, officials with the Illinois Federation of Teachers urged the judge to deny DeVore’s request, claiming if granted, it would scuttle “public health measures that, in the judgment of policymakers and the medical professionals advising them, are necessary to keep schools open safely.”

But Shannon Adcock, a Naperville mother of three who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit against Indian Prairie School District 204, said she believes all parents should have the right to choose whether their children are masked at school, especially as families have been dealing with pandemic-era hardships facing their children for nearly two years.

“When the first pandemic hit, I think we were all in this together, but by that summer, when the school district surveyed parents, the majority wanted to be back in person, and (District 204) ended up going remote. ... It was like a bait and switch,” said Adcock.

Adcock is president of Awake Illinois, a nonprofit parent advocacy group she launched two days after losing her bid for a seat on the District 204 school board.

“I think our children have paid the biggest price during the pandemic, and we’ve all seen the harm and impact,” Adcock said. “They need to be able to socialize again without fear, to be with their friends again without masks, so they can give and receive smiles.”

Chicago Tribune reporters Jeremy Gorner and Tracy Swartz contributed.

kcullotta@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @kcullotta

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