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Masking Mandates Lifted

Education K-12 Education

Schools and districts throughout the State – and country – are beginning this school week on the heels of a flurry of announcements made last Friday by the CDC, the Illinois Supreme Court, Governor Pritzker and ISBE, culminating in a significant shift in the masking recommendations and policies that have been in place for almost two years. 

CDC: On Friday the CDC announced that it no longer recommends universal indoor mask wearing in K-12 and early education settings in areas with a low or medium COVID-19 Community Level. In its announcement, the CDC issued a new tool to assist communities with identifying their COVID-19  Community Level. The CDC looks at the combination of three metrics — new COVID-19 admissions per 100,000 population in the past 7 days, the percent of staffed inpatient beds occupied by COVID-19 patients, and total new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 population in the past 7 days — to determine the COVID-19 Community Level. The tool identifies Cook, Kane, and Lake counties, to name a few, as all being areas with a low COVID-19 Community Level.   

Even for areas with a low COVID-19 Community Level, the CDC’s isolation and quarantine recommendations remain in place. The CDC also continues to recommend maintaining improved ventilation in public indoor spaces. For areas with a medium COVID-19 Community Level, the CDC advises state and local authorities to consider screening testing or other testing strategies for those exposed to COVID-19 in schools. Only for areas with high COVID-19 Community Levels does the CDC recommend universal use of masks indoors in public, including in K-12 schools. At all levels, the CDC states that “people can wear a mask based on personal preference, informed by personal level of risk.” Individuals who have symptoms, test positive, or are exposed to someone with COVID-19 are advised to wear a mask.  

Aligned with its updated guidance for school buildings, the CDC also announced that it will no longer enforce its previous requirement for people to wear masks on buses or vans operated by public or private school systems, including early care and education/child care programs. They stated that other conveyance operators must continue to require all people onboard to wear masks.   

Illinois Supreme Court: Friday’s announcements also included a highly anticipated decision by the Illinois Supreme Court regarding a lower court’s February 4 Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) enjoining the Governor from enforcing certain COVID-19 mitigation measures including universal masking. The Appellate Court previously dismissed the appeal as moot, finding that the state COVID-19 mandates had already expired on their own terms and that the TRO did not restrain local school districts. The state defendants appealed, asking the Supreme Court to find that the Governor’s Executive Orders were still in effect and to overturn the TRO on its merits. Alternatively, the state defendants asked the Supreme Court to exercise its supervisory powers to vacate the TRO – something they said the Appellate Court should have done upon finding that the appeal was moot. The Supreme Court declined to hear the merits of the state’s appeal. However, the Supreme Court vacated the TRO, sending the case back to the circuit court for further proceedings.  

Governor Pritzker: Following the Illinois Supreme Court’s decision, Governor Pritzker issued an announcement stating that the Illinois Supreme Court’s decision clears the way for the state to re-issue its mask mandates and other COVID-19 precautions in the future, if needed. However, the Governor stated that because the CDC has recommended that masks are needed only in areas of high transmission, the state would no longer require masks in schools effective Monday, February 28, 2022. He stated that the state will recommend that all schools districts follow CDC guidance and that the state will update its existing guidance in the coming days. 

ISBE: In light of the Governor’s announcement, Dr. Carmen Ayala, State Superintendent of Education at ISBE, announced that starting Monday, February 28, “masks are optional for all schools and school districts.” While this announcement expressly permits schools and districts to lift any current masking requirements, we have confirmed that it was not intended to convey a prohibition on schools independently mandating masks. Dr. Ayala stated that ISBE will work with IDPH to update their guidance documents as soon as possible.  

Moving Forward 

Schools and school districts now have more local discretion to determine COVID-19 mitigation measures. However, the litigation in Sangamon County regarding the authority of local school districts and the state to implement mask mandates and other COVID-19 precautions is ongoing. To discuss implications and considerations for how these changes affect your particular school or district, including COVID-19 mitigation measures beyond masking, reach out to your Franczek contact or any author of this alert. As always, we will continue to monitor developments and guidance issued by ISBE and IDPH and will provide further updates accordingly.