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Masks in school have been part of classroom life since the pandemic began nearly two years ago. A downstate Illinois court ruling on Friday is forcing school districts to make masks optional in classrooms across the Chicago suburbs.

Manuel Martinez

Masks were optional on Monday for thousands of students across the Chicago area

It was a chaotic return to school across the Chicago area on Monday as mask mandates disappeared in some school districts while others stuck to COVID-19 mitigations following a Friday night ruling that Gov. JB Pritzker had overstepped his authority in imposing mandates in schools.

Pritzker seized on that confusion Monday afternoon and attacked the ruling, saying it was “out of step with the vast majority of legal analysis in Illinois and across the nation.”

“The judge’s decision cultivates chaos for parents, families, teachers and school administrators across the state,” Pritzker said. “Poor legal reasoning should not take one of our most effective tools off the table.”

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul filed an appeal with the 4th District State Appellate Court in Springfield on Monday and a motion to stop Friday’s temporary restraining order.

Some of the state’s largest school districts, including Chicago Public Schools and Elgin U-46, still required masks for students and staff at school. But other districts went mask optional and stopped requiring quarantine for close contacts, as called for in Friday’s ruling. This includes the largest high school district in the state, which is based in northwest suburban Arlington Heights.

Other districts punted, canceling class or going remote for the day. Hinsdale District 181 moved classes online, telling parents that because of “the multiple interpretations” of the ruling and the state mandates “there is a strong likelihood that there will be disruption in our schools which will have a substantial negative impact on the delivery of instruction and the health and safety of our students and staff.” A school board meeting is scheduled for Monday night.

These districts are among the nearly 170 impacted by the temporary restraining order imposed on Friday by Sangamon County Judge Raylene Grischow. The Springfield judge halted enforcement of COVID-19 mandates in schools, including masking, quarantine for close contacts and testing for unvaccinated staff.

The ruling technically only affects the 700 students and staff in the schools that filed the lawsuits against the mandates. Elgin U-46, for example, is exempting the small number of students in the school district from the mask requirement. However, many school districts are changing policies for all students.

And other school districts that aren’t named in the suit say they are in legal limbo because the judge ruled the state had exceeded its authority with these statewide school mandates.

The Catholic schools in the Rockford area, for example, on Monday went mask optional in response to Friday’s order. The roughly 11,000 students in the Rockford Diocese also won’t have to quarantine if they’re a close contact and unvaccinated staff no longer have test weekly.

Masks are still required for students in Archdiocese of Chicago Catholic schools. The superintendent told parents the Archdiocese is not part of the lawsuit and also has the authority to mandate masks even if it wasn’t ordered by the state.

A broader push to move away from mask mandates is growing. Democratic governors in Connecticut, New Jersey and Delaware on Monday announced they will set timelines to end mask mandates in schools.

The pressure is growing on Pritzker, who said on Monday that COVID-19 hospitalization levels would dictate when mask mandates would be lifted. He said he expects to share “some additional guidance in coming days.”

“I’m listening to the doctors about what [hospitalization] numbers they believe are correct and no doubt we are heading in the right direction, so you’ll be hearing more about that,” he said.

Like the Archdiocese of Chicago, CPS and Elgin officials also say they have the authority to maintain their COVID policies.

The Chicago Teachers Union highlighted the agreement reached with the school district last month that guarantees masking. The head of Elgin U-46, the state’s second-largest district, wrote to parents and staff on Sunday that the district has the local authority to continue its mandates and that it was obligated by its union contracts “to protect [the] health and safety of its schools.”

Over the weekend, most districts that were moving to mask optional told families that masks were still encouraged and required on buses. They tried to calm nervous families.

“We know that this is a sudden change in how our buildings have been operating this year,” Supt. Lori Bein wrote on Saturday to elementary school parents in Arlington Heights District 25. “We want to reassure you that the health and safety of our students and staff is of the utmost importance to us.”

To the downstate lawyer representing the plaintiffs, Thomas DeVore, this case isn’t about the merits of COVID-19 mitigation efforts. He said Grischow’s ruling underscored how Pritzker went far beyond the powers granted to him by law.

“This is not about a mask, a vaccine or an exclusion and whether those policies in and of themselves are good or bad, which is what the governor always wants to talk about. It’s about whether the law, as it’s written, allows him or his agencies or the school districts the authority to do those things,” DeVore said. “And she unequivocally said that they do not, and that if the legislature thinks that they should be, well, they can pass a law that makes it.”

The judge’s temporary order is one step as the judge moves toward issuing a final ruling. She has made clear her preliminary views.

“The plaintiffs have due process rights under the law which provide them a meaningful opportunity to object to any such mitigations being levied against them and it is these due process rights which are being continually violated,” Grischow wrote.

Pritzker on Monday said that the judge misread the due process protections relevant to the executive orders and emergency rules behind the statewide mask mandate.

The judge, in her ruling, said the governor overshot what lawmakers allowed him to do by delegating power to the State Board of Education and local school districts.

Grischow said school districts were being forced to follow guidance “without any compliance with rulemaking. This type of evil is exactly what the law was intended to constrain.”

Kate N. Grossman is WBEZ’s education editor. Follow her @WBEZeducation and @KateGrossman1 Dave McKinney covers Illinois politics and government for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter@davemckinney.

Susie An contributed to this story.

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