DANVILLE — Protestors from the group Vermilion County Health Advocates stood outside the Vermilion County Courthouse on Friday afternoon holding signs and wearing t-shirts saying “Unmask our Children” while cars honked in support.
Meanwhile — inside the courthouse — Judge Karen Wall ruled against both Danville District 118 teachers and parents from Hoopeston Area School District 11 who wanted to get out of Illinois’ COVID-19 vaccine and mask mandates in schools.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s September executive order requires all Illinois schools to follow COVID-19 protocols — including mandatory vaccines for teachers and mask-wearing — or lose all state funding.
Teachers who refuse to get vaccinated against COVID-19 must be tested weekly, the order states.
The lawsuits were filed against the school districts and their superintendents. However, Judge Wall ruled that school districts and their superintendents are justified in following state orders.
“If you have a problem with the governor’s executive order, your beef is not with the school district,” Wall said in her ruling. “Your beef is with the governor.”
Maurissa Brown, a Vermilion County resident and Oakwood Community Unit School District parent, was among those protesting outside the courthouse.
Brown said teachers should have a choice whether to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
“I feel like [teachers] should have the right to choose what they need for their health care,” Brown said. “I don’t think it’s up to the government to determine what works for everybody as a whole. We all have individual needs.”
Brown said students shouldn’t have to wear masks in school buildings — which the governor’s executive order also mandates.
She said she decided to pull her kids out of the Oakwood Community Unit School District and homeschool them because she feels like masking is child abuse.
“I just want everybody to be able to choose for themselves and for their families what is right for them,” Brown said.
Michael Baker, a Vermilion County resident and Hoopeston Area School District parent, said all four of his children have asthma.
Although students with underlying medical conditions may get a mask exemption, Baker said it should ultimately be up to the parents.
“There’s times that I just don’t want to send my kids but they need education,” Baker said. “It’s our choice if we want our children to wear masks.”
In her ruling, Judge Wall said that of the Vermilion County COVID-19 cases in the last week, more than two-thirds were among young people.
Currently, only 15% of Vermilion County residents between the ages of 12-17 are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to data from the Vermilion County Health Department, compared to 58% statewide. About 38% of all Vermilion County residents are fully vaccinated.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has deemed COVID-19 transmission in Vermilion County — and all 102 counties in Illinois — to be high, and recommends mask-wearing to protect against further spread.
Hearings in Vermillion County are scheduled for later this month, to continue to hear arguments regarding the state’s school rules requiring masks and vaccines or testing.
The school districts could not be reached in time for comment.
Farrah Anderson is a student journalist with Illinois Public Media’s student newsroom. Follow her on Twitter @farrahsoa