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Dawes Elementary School remains mostly empty on the first day back for prekindergarten students on January 11, 2021.

Manuel Martinez

The Rundown: Schools scramble amid confusion over masks

Good afternoon! It’s Monday, and the nephews loved Labyrinth when I was babysitting them on Friday. Maybe next time I’ll cue up the 1985 Alice in Wonderland TV miniseries that had this horrific scene with the Jabberwocky that’s totally OK for kids. Here’s what you need to know today.

1. Masks are now optional for thousands of Illinois students after a downstate judge’s ruling

Confusion erupted among families and school officials over the weekend after a downstate judge ruled to temporarily suspend mask requirements at schools, saying Gov. JB Pritzker had overstepped his authority.

Some districts either shifted to remote learning or canceled classes today. Chicago Public Schools and Elgin U-46 — the largest districts in the state — are keeping masks in place, partly because of safety agreements with their teachers unions that can’t be broken.

And others are following the judge’s order, telling families that masks are optional but encouraged.

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul is seeking to stop the judge’s order and is expected to file an appeal today. [WBEZ]

The news comes as Democratic governors in other states are re-evaluating their COVID-19 protocols. Today, the governors of New Jersey and Delaware announced they will lift mask mandates for schools. [NPR]

The whole thing raises an obvious question: When, if ever, will life go back to “normal”? As The Washington Post reports, a growing number of pandemic-fatigued Americans want to move on with their lives.

But, as we’ve all experienced, previous declarations of the pandemic’s end were premature.

“We’d like to be done,” a behavioral scientist told the newspaper. “The problem is, it’s a virus. It’s not getting tired.” [WaPo]

2. Lightfoot promised to bring more transparency to City Hall. But she scolded staffers for sending emails that could become public

An email obtained by the Chicago Tribune shows Mayor Lori Lightfoot criticizing staffers for sending emails that could be requested by anyone under the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

“I have asked now several times for there to be no more correspondence and writings that are not protected by (privilege),” Lightfoot wrote in a November 2020 email to an aide.

“I am happy to engage in the conversation, but it must be done in a way that does not expose this administration to risk,” the mayor added.

The Trib reports the subject of the email regarded General Iron, a controversial scrap shredder that wanted to move from the mostly white Lincoln Park neighborhood to a predominantly Latino area on the Southeast Side.

The email shows there were divisions within the Lightfoot administration over how to handle the issue. [Chicago Tribune]

3. Diplomatic talks intensify as concerns grow that a Russian invasion of Ukraine could be imminent

French President Emmanuel Macron met with Russian President Vladimir Putin today in Moscow in hopes of de-escalating the standoff over Ukraine, with an estimated 100,000 Russian troops near the border.

At the same time, President Joe Biden met with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz amid concerns that Germany has not stood up as forcefully against Russia as other NATO allies. [AP]

The diplomatic talks come as U.S. military and intelligence assessments conclude that up to 50,000 civilians could be killed or wounded during a large-scale Russian invasion, and Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv could be taken over within two days, reports The Washington Post.

The assessments also say the invasion could spark a humanitarian crisis, with up to 5 million refugees fleeing the country. [WaPo]

4. U.S. figure skater Vincent Zhou is out after testing positive for COVID-19 at the Winter Olympics

U.S. men’s figure skater Vincent Zhou will not compete in the men’s singles competition that begins tomorrow after he tested positive for COVID-19.

He will also not join his teammates when they accept their silver medals tomorrow for the team competition.

“This is not the end. This is a setup for a bigger comeback,” the 21-year-old said in an emotional video posted on his Instagram account. [AP]

Meanwhile, U.S. ski champ Mikaela Shiffrin is out after falling in her first run in the giant slalom. [NPR]

And Ireen Wüst of the Netherlands made Olympic history by becoming the first athlete ever to win an individual gold medal at five Olympics. [NPR]

5. Tributes pour in for Chicago soul singer Syl Johnson

The legendary Syl Johnson, whose song “Different Strokes” was frequently sampled in hip-hop, died at the age of 85.

Born Sylvester Thompson in Mississippi, Johnson was known for his contributions to the Chicago soul scene in the 1960s and ’70s, releasing records for the labels Twinight Records — originally named Twilight Records — and Hi Records.

In 2011, Johnson filed a lawsuit that was ultimately settled against Kanye West and Jay-Z for using an unauthorized sample of “Different Strokes” for their track “The Joy.”

“He would tell people in the neighborhood, ‘If you find any rapper who has sampled my music, I will pay you,’” Johnson’s daughter, Syleecia Thompson, told The New York Times in 2010 of her father’s pursuit of unauthorized samples. “And so all the kids, we would go buy cassettes and listen to see if we could hear his ‘wow!’ and his ‘aw!’ ” [NPR]

Here’s what else is happening

  • An independent state of Palestine is part of a new proposal from former Israeli and Palestinian officials. [AP]
  • A state of emergency has been declared in Ottawa as truckers protest the Canadian government’s vaccine mandate. [NPR]
  • The Chicago Blackhawks fired a minor-league trainer in November after he was accused of sexual harassment. [AP]
  • The Chicago area could see snow later this week. [Block Club Chicago]

Oh, and one more thing …

Sometimes quitters are winners.

You’ve probably heard of the “Great Resignation” as people, fed up with their jobs, seek new opportunities amid a labor shortage that tips the scales in favor of employees.

WBEZ’s Curious City wanted to hear more from these folks and better understand what pushed them to the point to call it quits, what they’re up to now and how it’s been going.

They heard from over 100 people, including bookkeepers, grocery store deli clerks, architects, middle school math teachers, plumbers, marketing directors, nannies and so many more folks across the Chicago area who put in their two weeks notice in 2021.

Some common themes emerged across their responses, and they probably won’t surprise you. People said they were stressed, underpaid, burnt out and overwhelmed at work. And they have no regrets over quitting. [WBEZ]

Tell me something good ...

NPR asked an interesting question this week: Which great books by Black authors should be brought to the screen? And I’d like to know what you think.

Me? I’d love to see N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy on the big screen. If you haven’t read them, treat yourself. The books take place in a world that experiences occasional apocalyptic events known as “seasons.”

And lucky for us, Jemisin is adapting the books herself for Sony Pictures Entertainment. [Deadline]

What books from a Black author would you like to see turned into a movie? Feel free to email me, and your response might be shared in the newsletter this week.

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