Pritzker to fight Springfield judge’s decision overturning school mask mandate, vaccine or testing requirement for K-12 staff

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Governor JB Pritzker’s mandate for masks in schools was thrown into legal limbo late Friday after a Sangamon County judge overturned his rules on both masking and mandatory COVID-19 vaccines or testing schedules for school staff — flashpoints in a bitter ideological struggle over the governor’s pandemic management.

Hours after Judge Raylene Grischow issued her decision, Pritzker promised to take the case to a higher court, asking for an expedited appeal of the ruling.

But if the state’s Fourth District Court of Appeals doesn’t step in and suspend Grischow’s temporary restraining order over the weekend, K-12 students across the state could be free to come to school on Monday without a mask.

In a statement, Pritzker warned of the “serious consequences[s]stemming from Grischow’s decision, saying districts “will no longer have enough tools to keep students and staff safe while COVID-19 continues to threaten our communities,” and warned that lifting the mandate mask “could force schools to move away”.

Earlier Friday, Pritzker told reporters he was “very hopeful” he would soon be able to scrap the state’s mask mandate as the number of new COVID cases and hospitalizations continues to climb. drop rapidly after Omicron’s massive surge of the virus hit the state in December. and January, killing nearly 5,000 Illinois since the first case of the variant was detected.

“I think we should take the masks off as soon as possible,” Pritzker said at an unrelated event. “I constantly listen to doctors and scientists and I encourage them: ‘When can we do this? When is the right time? What’s the right way to do it?’ And so [I’m] I really hope we can make announcements about this.

Judge Grischow’s ruling comes six months after Pritzker announced the school mask mandate in early August, when the Delta variant of COVID sent Illinois’ virus case counts and hospitalizations to another spike as schools were preparing for another school year hampered by the pandemic.

In the weeks that followed, Pritzker was the subject of dozens of lawsuits challenging both Illinois’ school mask mandate and the subsequent requirement that school staff get a COVID shot or undergo regular testing for the virus. But Friday’s ruling represents the biggest victory in nearly two years of legal battles over Pritzker’s COVID mitigation strategies.

Judge Grischow — who earlier in the pandemic overturned a high-profile legal victory by GOP gubernatorial candidate State Sen. Darren Bailey (R-Xenia) challenging Pritzker’s stay-at-home orders — s sided with parents who sued 146 school districts during the state’s mask mandate, as well as staff who sued 21 other districts over Pritzker’s vaccine requirement. In these cases, staff who refused to be vaccinated also objected to the alternative requirement of regular COVID testing, saying it amounted to a forced medical procedure.

In a 29-page notice, Grischow found that masks, vaccines and testing are all forms of “quarantine” — something that can only be enforced by the state’s public health department or departments. local health authorities, and only after a hearing. Consequently, Grischow explained, students and staff had been deprived of their right to due process by being subject to Pritzker’s decrees.

Grischow also accused the Pritzker administration of trying to end a judicial review by allowing the state board of education to be in charge of rules for masks and vaccines in schools instead. from the Department of Public Health — the only state agency with the authority to quarantine individuals.

“IDPH passed the buck to the schools so as not to trigger the due process protections under [state law],” Grischow wrote. “IDPH cannot delegate its duties and responsibilities to the ISBE and then sit on the sidelines with its hands in the air saying ‘it wasn’t us’. We have not excluded children. We have not imposed vaccines. We haven’t implemented a mask mandate…schools have.

When Pritzker announced his vaccination mandate for school staff in late August – when the peak of the COVID surge in the Delta coincided with the start of the school year – the two teachers‘ unions in the state of Illinois stood by the governor, pledging to help individual bargaining units reach agreements with their school districts on how vaccine opt-out options would work for those seeking religious or medical exemptions .

In a statement late Friday, Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery urged school districts to continue to uphold safety agreements contained in renegotiated union contracts after Pritzker’s vaccination mandate was announced. .

“We believe what the judge ordered today is legally flawed and poses a threat to public health and, most importantly, a threat to keeping Illinois schools open for in-person learning,” said Montgomery. “Our children and their families need certainty and some normality in school, not legal wrangling handled by a small minority of citizens.”

In a statement, Pritzker interpreted Grischow’s decision more narrowly than the judge indicated in his ruling, suggesting it applies only to the districts named in the lawsuits, although a footnote of page in the judge’s opinion stated that she overruled all of the governor’s rules and so it applied to all school districts in Illinois, although he did not grant class certification in the costume earlier in the day.

Attorney General Kwame Raoul chastised Grischow for his decision Friday night when announcing the request for an expedited appeal with Pritzker.

“This decision sends the message that not all students have the same right to safely access Illinois schools and classrooms, especially if they have disabilities or other health conditions. “, said Raoul. “The court’s erroneous decision is wrong in law, demonstrates a misunderstanding of Illinois’ emergency injunction process, and has no bearing on the case before the court. It prioritises to 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 fear of contracting a virus that has claimed the lives of more than 31,000 Illinois residents – or take this virus home to loved ones.

This story has been updated.

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