Illinois bill to impose more public health controls on private schools dies

Illinois bill to impose more public health controls on private schools dies

Private schools kept most of their students in class during the COVID-19 pandemic, making public schools look bad. Union bosses tried and failed to force through a bill to mandate state controls on private school operations in the case of a new health crisis.

Nearly 17,000 Illinoisans said they didn’t want the state to have any more power to interfere in private school decisions or subject public school teachers to investigations for health code infractions. Then scores of parents were at the Statehouse May 30 and again May 31.

It made a difference.

State lawmakers abandoned House Bill 2789 in the waning hours of the legislative session on Memorial Day. A version previously passed the Illinois House, but an amended Senate version of the bill was not called for a vote.

Had it passed, the bill would have required the Illinois Department of Public Health to set rules for in-person instruction at public as well as at private schools. State rules would have governed masks, cleaning, occupancy, social distancing and handling of positive cases. It would’ve given the state the power to shut down private as well as public schools, taking away the local health department control used during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Private schools were able to safely keep students in classrooms during the pandemic while many teachers unions fought to keep public schools closed. Opponents saw HB 2789 as a power play by public unions and as punishment for schools that had served parents and students well through a global pandemic. Plus, the proposed rules defied direct guidance from federal health officials who said young students rarely transmitted the virus when proper protocols were in place.

“The end result of this language is that private schools could have any of their facilities shut down by state authorities,” state Sen. Donald DeWitte, R-West Dundee, said after the bill emerged from a Senate committee May 27. “My private schools had a stellar record, many even stayed open. I’d hate to compare that record with the public schools – many of whom told me they had no guidance at all.”

Teachers unions were driving the bill forward, which was made clear during Senate testimony May 27 by Amanda Elliott, executive director of legislative affairs at the Illinois State Board of Education.

“We’ve been working with IEA for several weeks to ensure student safety no matter the learning environment,” Elliott said.

Teachers’ unions have had unmatched access to the public officials in determining the future of rules that will affect both public and private schools. Private schools and parents were not invited to participate.

But then they demanded to be heard, by filing their opposition to the bill, demonstrating at the state capitol and making scores of phone calls to their local representatives.

To their credit, lawmakers listened and kept government from overreaching and trying to control an education system that had already proven itself during a global pandemic.

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