Families brace for whiplash as Illinois’ school mask fight continues in court

Lions Park Elementary
Students get on the bus after school at Lions Park Elementary in Mt. Prospect, IL on Monday Feb. 7, 2022. Anna Savchenko / WBEZ
Lions Park Elementary
Students get on the bus after school at Lions Park Elementary in Mt. Prospect, IL on Monday Feb. 7, 2022. Anna Savchenko / WBEZ

Families brace for whiplash as Illinois’ school mask fight continues in court

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Pigtailed 7-year-old Jaelyn Lozano was still wearing her space-themed mask Monday as she joined a stream of kids running out of Lions Park Elementary in north suburban Mt. Prospect at the end of the day. Her grandmother Gina Lozano said Jaelyn worried she might be bullied for wearing a mask to school.

“The reason why this [pandemic] is still going on is for people who are refusing to wear masks,” Lozano said. “It’s scary.”

But there was no bullying. Many of Jaelyn’s classmates continued to wear masks even though they are no longer required by the Mt. Prospect School District 57, which has gone mask optional in light of a court ruling last week that affects about 170 districts. Sangamon County Judge Raylene Grischow issued a temporary restraining order that put a halt on the state’s mask mandate in schools, as well as some other COVID-19 mitigation measures.

School districts are taking different approaches to the temporary restraining order, leading to a mix of relief, confusion, fear and ongoing disagreements for teachers, administrators, parents and kids.

In Barrington, some students said they felt peer pressured to take off their masks. Jackie Zagrans said her middle school daughter felt so anxious about her health and about bullies, she left school early. Zagrans said her daughter told her one boy was pulling masks off some of the younger students.

“There were threats made,” she said. “There was a great deal of ugliness in the hallways, in the classrooms and at the lunch table.”

Zagrans said as the legal process plays out, she hopes the district makes a better plan to handle these situations. She’s also concerned this could mark an increase in COVID infections.

Another Barrington mother, Marsha McClary, said her kids had no problems at school. They were happy to go without masks, and they said it wasn’t tense between kids who wore masks and those who didn’t. She said kids have been missing out on social cues wearing masks all day.

“There’s just a lot of dimensions of their life that, when you can’t see how someone’s really reacting to something you say, that’s a much bigger deal than I think a lot of people realized,” she said.

McClary said it would be unfortunate if kids had to go back to wearing masks while the legal challenge continues. She said kids aren’t as affected by the coronavirus as other groups.

“No matter what happens with the legal system, we are going to continue to advocate for these kids who don’t have as much of a voice as the parents do,” she said.

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. A ruling from the appellate court is expected by next week.

In the appeal, Raoul argued that Springfield-based Judge Grischow fundamentally misread the law. He argued that the governor has the authority to issue mandates during a public health emergency and that no due process rights were violated, contrary to what the judge found. Raoul also said she failed to consider the harm to student learning and the public health risks caused by her order.

As the legal fight plays out, an elementary teacher in suburban Wheaton said she doesn’t agree with her district choosing to go mask optional knowing there could be yet another legal maneuver to bring back the mask mandate.

“Going back and forth is confusing for kids,” she said.

The teacher spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation from community members around what she said has been a contentious issue. She said all the kids in her class wore masks today, but it was more mixed in other classrooms, including among faculty. She was told teachers shouldn’t tell kids to put their masks back on even if they came to school wearing one.

“We’re not supposed to be policing that,” she said. “They take it off, they take it off. I’m a little uncomfortable with that.”

She said January was rough with many kids and staff out with COVID. She worries what the coming days will bring if fewer people wear masks in the building.

In U-46 in Elgin, the district is still requiring masks, except for some students who are part of the lawsuit. Superintendent Tony Sanders said most students and staff came to school masked. He said some parents pulled their kids from school when they weren’t allowed to be in class without a mask.

Sanders said school districts need to do what’s best for their community. He said in his area, COVID cases have been declining, but not enough to go maskless.

“We are getting so close with our mitigation strategies in place, with vaccinations becoming available, that within hopefully weeks or a few months, we’ll be back in a place that’s much more normal,” he said. “That may include less mitigation strategies, including perhaps masks optional.”

A few districts like Hinsdale District 181 canceled in-person classes Monday as they sought to adjust policies in light of the ruling. At a special school board meeting Monday night, members decided to return to in-person learning on Tuesday and temporarily suspend enforcing the mask mandate. Staff will still be required to wear masks and students will be strongly encouraged to do so.

Susie An covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @soosieon.

Anna Savchenko contributed reporting to this story.