SPRINGFIELD — Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s mask mandate for schools hit another roadblock on Tuesday when a bipartisan legislative committee rejected the Illinois Department of Public Health’s attempt to reintroduce the governor’s emergency COVID-19 protocols for classrooms across the state.
The department’s emergency rules — which served as the state’s official guidance on masks, testing and exclusion for those exposed to the coronavirus in schools — expired on Sunday. The emergency rules re-filed on Monday became effective immediately.
But on Tuesday, the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, an oversight panel comprised of Democratic and Republican lawmakers tasked with reviewing rules made by state agencies, voted 9-0 to suspend the emergency rules, citing an on-going court battle that resulted in a temporary restraining order preventing dozens of school districts across the state from requiring students to wear masks in classrooms.
“We’re currently in a situation where the TRO said this rule was not enforceable,” said state Rep. Mike Haplin, D-Rock Island, who is a member of the committee. “It’s possible, if not probable, that this might change on appeal but for now, as we sit here, for that reason, I vote yes [to suspend the emergency rule].”
Sangamon County Judge Raylene Grischow issued her temporary restraining order on Feb. 4 in response to a lawsuit filed by a group of parents and students representing more than 100 school districts.
But Tuesday’s decision by the legislative panel appears to temporarily suspend the emergency rule for schools across the state, not just those covered by the lawsuit.
Last week, Pritzker slammed Grischow’s ruling as “poor legal reasoning,” and Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul appealed it to the Fourth District Appellate Court.
The legislative oversight panel’s vote on Tuesday comes just shy of a week after the governor’s announcement that he would lift the indoor mask mandate for most public settings on Feb. 28 — but not yet for schools, arguing the “equation for schools just looks different right now than it does for the general population.”
But on Tuesday, Republicans quickly lauded the committee’s vote as a victory.
State Rep. Keith Wheeler, the co-chairman of the committee, said the ruling left decision-making in the hands of local school districts.
“Locally elected school boards who are accountable to parents and know best for their districts, along with their local health department experts, should be allowed to make decisions on COVID mitigations that fit their communities best,” Wheeler said in a statement.
Other Republicans accused the governor of attempting to circumvent the court.
“In his quest for power at all costs, the Governor attempted to go above the judicial system to continue to require masks in schools, a move that even his Democrat allies in the legislature wouldn’t support,” state Senate Republican Leader Dan McConchie said in a statement.
Republican challengers in the governor’s race also slammed Pritzker for his “attempt” to go around the court order.
“Today, Illinois Legislators made it clear it’s time for Pritzker’s tyrannical reign to end. Democrats and Republicans slammed Pritzker COVID chaos by stopping his attempt to go around the court order that lifted mask mandates in schools,” Bull Valley businessman Gary Rabine said.
Venture capitalist Jesse Sullivan called the governor’s actions “so extreme his own party is now rejecting them.”
Pritzker’s office vowed to work with the various interested parties to maintain in-person learning until the appellate court rules.
“As doctors have said time and again, masks are the best way to preserve in-person learning and keep children and staff safe,” said Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh. “We look forward to continuing to work with members of the General Assembly, school districts, parents, communities and all stakeholders to use the tools we have to keep in-person learning.
“In the meantime, the administration urges all schools and parents to encourage mask-wearing to keep everyone in their schools and communities safe.”