Illinois lawmakers ask if school mask mandate discipline went too far

Illinois lawmakers ask if school mask mandate discipline went too far

The Illinois State Board of Education might have overstepped its authority by yanking recognition of schools that defied a statewide mask mandate. State lawmakers have asked the board to clarify those rules.

A bipartisan group of state lawmakers is asking whether the Illinois State Board of Education had the authority to put four public schools on probation and strip nine private schools of state recognition over their refusal to follow the statewide school mask mandate.

Ten of the 12 members who make up the Illinois General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules voted in favor of a resolution that requested ISBE to clarify the process for revoking school recognition. The resolution also sought to distinguish between “rules” and “guidance” issued by the ISBE.

Committee Co-chairman, state Rep. Keith Wheeler, R-Oswego, said while the committee has oversight for state agency rules, “There is no such oversight process for guidance. So how is the public protected from government overreach if we’re all to live by guidance alone and not by rule?”

Deputy legal officer for the ISBE, Kristen Kennedy, said the board didn’t intend to file any rules, suggesting existing state law and administrative rules exist that enabled ISBE to punish schools, public or private, for noncompliance with Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s statewide school mask mandate.

State Sen. John Curran, R-Downers Grove, said, “You should have due process in place for all schools, all parents who are invested in these schools whether public or private and most importantly for the children that attend.” Curran questioned the state’s inconsistent treatment of noncompliant public and private schools.

On Aug. 4, Pritzker announced all students in Illinois would be required to wear masks in the classroom to slow the spread of the COVID-19 Delta variant. At one point 58 school districts were being threatened with discipline over refusing to implement mask mandates. Only 11 schools continued to decline to comply with the mandate.

Revoking school recognition means the schools cannot compete in state sports competitions, high school diplomas may not be recognized and private schools cannot participate in the Tax Credit Scholarship plan that allows low-income families to send their children to private schools.

Pritzker defended statewide mandatory masking in schools.

“Until they [COVID-19 cases] start to come down on the other side of this, we can’t lighten up our mitigations,” Pritzker said Sept. 14.

Just weeks before issuing the statewide mandate, Pritzker had said mask policies should be left to local school and public health leaders.

“Families should be involved in making decisions for their own families. And, school districts and school boards will make decisions for the schools within their districts,” Pritzker said July 17.

But that was before so many school districts were exercising their freedom to choose and making what Pritzker considered to be the wrong decision.

“Far too few school districts have chosen to follow the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention prescription for keeping students and staff safe,” Pritzker said when he issued the statewide mask mandate. “Given the CDC’s strong recommendation, I had hoped that a state mask requirement in schools wouldn’t be necessary, but it is.”

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