Illinois judge blocks school mask mandate, state to appeal

School children wearing masks
Posted at 12:01 PM, Feb 05, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-05 12:01:53-05

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) -- A central Illinois judge has issued a temporary restraining order that prevents school districts statewide from requiring students to wear masks in classrooms, saying Gov. J.B. Pritzker overstepped his legal authority with a mask mandate that has angered many parents and teachers alike.

In a ruling issued Friday in response to a lawsuit filed by a group of parents and teachers, Sangamon County Circuit Judge Raylene Grischow also determined that several more of Pritzker's emergency orders to combat the spread of COVID-19, including one issued last year that mandates vaccinations for school employees, are "null and void."

"This court acknowledges the tragic toll the COVID-19 pandemic has taken, not only on this state but throughout the nation and globe," Grischow wrote in a ruling that affects 146 Illinois school districts, including the public school system in Chicago. "Nonetheless, it is the duty of the Courts to preserve the rule of law and ensure that all branches of government act within the boundaries of the authority granted under the Constitution."

Pritzker had harsh words for the judge's decision and quickly urged the state's attorney general's office to appeal, suggesting the ruling could spark another surge in the virus and force schools to close their doors and revert to online classes.

"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," Pritzker said in a statement. "This shows yet again that the mask mandate and school exclusion protocols are essential tools to keep schools open and everyone safe."

Attorney General Kwame Raoul agreed with Pritzker that the ruling would make it more difficult to protect students and school employees from the virus, and said he would appeal.

"This decision sends the message that all students do not have the same right to safely access schools and classrooms in Illinois, particularly if they have disabilities or other health concerns," Raoul said in a statement.

The ruling "prioritizes a relatively small group of plaintiffs who refuse to follow widely-accepted science over the rights of other students, faculty and staff to enter schools without the fear of contracting a virus that has claimed the lives of more than 31,000 Illinois residents -- or taking that virus home to their loved ones," he said.

In her ruling, the judge agreed with the parents and teachers who argued that only local health departments, and not the governor or school districts, have the authority to require such measures. The judge also agreed with parents who argued that the state cannot require districts to force staffers to get vaccinated or test weekly "without first providing them due process of law."