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Ruling on order blocking the mask mandate in some schools could come as soon as Thursday

Children and staff wear masks inside a classroom.

SPRINGFIELD — Gov. JB Pritzker says Illinois schools should continue universal masking despite a flurry of legal and legislative action around the state’s school mask mandate.

“The executive order is in effect,” Pritzker told reporters on Wednesday. “We still have a mask requirement in the state of Illinois for schools.”

Pritzker made the case for his executive order as the state awaits a ruling, due as early as Thursday, on its appeal of a temporary restraining order on the state school mask mandate, which impacts about 170 districts. Adding to the confusion is this week’s rejection of an emergency rule to continue requiring masks in schools by a panel of lawmakers charged with reviewing administrative rules.

The governor is facing headwinds from some Republicans and the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the state’s school COVID-19 mandates who argue that the panel’s action undercuts the state’s chances of upholding the mandates in court.

The legality of the state’s school mask mandate turns on how it originated. Pritzker reinstated the mandate through an executive order in August, and the Illinois Department of Public Health followed with an emergency rule in September to support its implementation in schools.

That rule, which laid out requirements around testing, masking and isolation policies for schools coping with the virus, expired on Feb. 13.

The IDPH tried to renew the rule earlier this week, but on Tuesday the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (JCAR) rejected it. Two Democratic senators on the panel voted “present.” One lawmaker on the panel, Rep. Steve Reick (R-Woodstock), cited the temporary restraining order as the reason the body opted not to move forward with the emergency rule.

“It was our opinion that IDPH was issuing a rule that could not be enforced because of the status of the appeal,” Reick said.

Sangamon County Judge Raylene Grischow issued the temporary restraining order on Feb. 4, lifting the statewide mask mandate and other COVID-19 safety measures in almost 170 school districts. She argued that Pritzker had exceeded his authority in imposing COVID-19 mandates in schools and the mandates were imposed without due process, an argument the Illinois’ attorney general has dismissed as flawed.

The Fourth District Appellate Court, which is hearing the appeal, asked the state and plaintiffs to submit explanations Wednesday on how the legislative committee’s action would affect the pending appeal.

The Attorney General and plaintiffs continued to take opposing views regarding JCAR’s vote in their filings to the court.

The attorney general’s office said JCAR’s action only related to IDPH’s renewal of emergency rule rather than the governor’s executive order. Therefore, the vote has no impact on the appeal.

Thomas DeVore, who represents the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said the JCAR vote weakens the state’s defense of keeping COVID mitigations in schools.

“It was clear this legislative body was giving due respect and deference to Judge Grischow’s ruling,” DeVore wrote of JCAR’s action.

The state mask mandate in other indoor settings is scheduled to lift Feb. 28 as virus cases continue to fall. Schools are a significant exception to this because they see high volumes of people crowded together for long periods of time, Pritzker says.

“Five days a week, six to eight hours a day, people are interacting in the hallways, running into each other,” Pritzker said. “They’re in rooms together, sometimes piled into rooms together.”

Caroline Kubzansky covers Springfield for WBEZ through the University of Illinois-Springfield Public Affairs Reporting Program. Follow her @CKubzansky. 

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

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Illinois Newsroom gets stories from public radio stations from across the state, including WBEZ-Chicago, WCBU-Peoria, WGLT-Normal, WVIK-Rock Island, WIUM-Macomb, WNIJ-DeKalb, WSIU-Carbondale, WUIS-Springfield, and St. Louis Public Radio.

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