Pritzker mask mandate leads to threats against 58 schools, districts

Pritzker mask mandate leads to threats against 58 schools, districts

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s Aug. 4 mask mandate drew criticism from the communities he just weeks earlier promised would keep local control over student COVID-19 safety. School districts that fail to kowtow face severe state sanctions.

Fifty-eight Illinois school districts were put on probation by the state after voting to make masks optional for returning students in defiance of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s statewide mask mandate.

The governor gave those districts’ administrators an ultimatum: require masking in schools or forfeit state recognition, funding, sports participation and the college prospects of seniors. He said his orders follow updated recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention designed to address the more-contagious Delta variant.

But his explanation did little to stem the outcry from parents and school staff who already voted on how to safely reopen their local schools. They do not believe Pritzker’s mask mandate is in their students’ best interests.

Frustrated parents have been complaining to local school districts about the governor’s mask mandate, which has forced “thousands of volunteer School Board members and superintendents throughout the state to act in a way that they personally disagree with in order to comply with the order,” according to Meridian School District Superintendent P.J. Caposey.

An elected member of the Mahomet-Seymour school board even had his medical license investigated by the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation after expressing personal opposition to the mandate. The department has since apologized and dismissed the case, but Dr. Jeremy Henrichs and lawmakers maintain the communications could have constituted criminal intimidation.

The Illinois State Board of Education sent ultimatums to 58 schools or districts. Timothy Christian middle and high schools complied with the state’s demands and are again recognized. Of the other 56 school districts, five are currently unrecognized by the state, 15 voted to comply and are reinstated, and the rest remain on probation.

Pritzker initially told Illinoisans he thought masking and other COVID-19 protocols should be a local decision, left to local school leaders being advised by local health departments.

“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. “Given the CDC’s strong recommendation, I had hoped that a state mask requirement in schools wouldn’t be necessary, but it is.”

Pritzker introduced his statewide mask mandate Aug. 4, requiring all students, staff and visitors in Illinois private and public schools to wear masks, regardless of vaccination status.

Then on Aug. 26 he imposed a statewide indoor mask mandate for anyone older than 2 starting Aug. 30. He also mandated COVID-19 vaccinations for all education workers from prekindergarten through college as well as for state college students. Health care workers also must be vaccinated, with first shots required by Sept. 5 or else workers face weekly testing.

“The executive order has the force of law,” Illinois Superintendent of Education Carmen Ayala said. “I understand the pressure some school and district leaders may be facing from community members, and I will provide you with every support to understand, communicate and comply with the order. However, noncompliance is not an option. I will not compromise the health and safety of students or staff, nor will I risk even one child’s life.”

She said a non-complying district would be contacted by the state, placed on probation and asked for a “corrective action plan” within 60 days. Failure to comply would mean a total loss of state funding, an inability to participate in Illinois High School Association and Illinois Elementary School Association sports, and diplomas would not be recognized by the state, “invalidating years of students’ hard work.”

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