You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

After 2 years of volatile debates, COVID-19 school mask mandate ends without fanfare in Illinois

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 3/1/2022 Karen Ann Cullotta, Chicago Tribune
Patton Elementary School students on Feb. 28, 2022, in Arlington Heights. © Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/TNS Patton Elementary School students on Feb. 28, 2022, in Arlington Heights.

A cheerful contingent of kindergartners queued up outside Patton Elementary School in Arlington Heights Monday morning, blissfully unaware that Feb. 28 marked a dramatic milestone in their nearly two-year trek through the COVID-19 pandemic.

For students in kindergarten through first grade, who have never experienced a typical, prepandemic school year, COVID-19 masks have become as ubiquitous as crayons, glue and scissors, and masked or unmasked, the youngsters greeted their arriving classmates with spirited squeals.

“It does feel like we’re turning a corner, but for our students, masks have been a nonissue,” Patton Principal Eric Larson said as the kindergartners headed to their classroom on the first day of the halting of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s school mask mandate.

Students arrive for school at Patton Elementary School on Feb. 28, 2022, in Arlington Heights. © Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/TNS Students arrive for school at Patton Elementary School on Feb. 28, 2022, in Arlington Heights.

“The kids have done a really good job treating each other with mutual respect, kindness and empathy, and their teachers have done a great job helping them understand that people make different choices about masking for different reasons,” Larson said.

Despite months of fervent parent protests, a flurry of lawsuits, and increasingly polarized communities where grievances have erupted between even the closest of neighbors, the Illinois school mask mandate ended Monday without fanfare.

Coinciding with the governor’s lifting of the mask mandate for the general public, and prompted by the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, federal rules also were relaxed for student transportation, with children no longer required to wear face masks while aboard a school bus.

Students arrive for school at Patton Elementary School on Feb. 28, 2022, in Arlington Heights. Two years after the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. J.B. Pritzker has lifted the school mask mandate starting today. © Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/TNS Students arrive for school at Patton Elementary School on Feb. 28, 2022, in Arlington Heights. Two years after the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. J.B. Pritzker has lifted the school mask mandate starting today.

While universal masking will still be enforced at Chicago Public Schools as part of a COVID-19 safety agreement with the Chicago Teachers Union, the vast majority of the roughly 850 Illinois school districts had shifted to mask-optional policies weeks before the Friday release of the CDC recommendations.

At Barrington 220 School District, where frustrated parents have packed school board meetings in recent months, demanding an end to the mask mandate, Superintendent Robert Hunt said in a letter to parents that even with the new CDC guidance, “anyone who wishes to continue wearing a mask is welcome to do so.”

“As I have stated in the past, this is an individual choice and we must respect one another’s decisions,” Hunt said.


Video: Mask Mandate Controversy: Fremont School District 79 Returns To Remote Learning Amid Reports Of Planned Protests (CBS Chicago)

UP NEXT
UP NEXT

“The pandemic is constantly evolving and guidance may change in the future. It is possible that we will have to add mitigations if there are significant increases in transmission rates in our schools. However, these latest changes indicate a positive step forward in this process,” Hunt said.

At the Washington-based National Education Association, union officials said although they are “encouraged by the new guidance, local governments must bring educators to the table with our in-school experience when determining how to keep school communities safe — including those with disabilities who are more vulnerable to the exposure and effects of COVID-19.”

“School districts should act cautiously in response to today’s announcement, with the health and safety of students, educators and their families always in mind,” NEA President Becky Pringle said in a statement.

Attorney Tom DeVore, who represents hundreds of Illinois parents who filed a lawsuit against the governor and the Illinois Department of Public Health, arguing that the school mask mandate was authorized illegally, said the governor “didn’t lift anything, because there was nothing for him to lift.”

State lawmakers failed to renew IDPH rules on masking in mid-February, prompting an appellate court to dismiss the governor’s appeal over a Springfield judge’s Feb. 4 restraining order as moot. In an order late Friday, the Illinois Supreme Court refused to take the case, and found that since the appeal had been dismissed as moot, the restraining order should also be tossed.

DeVore said with the vast majority of school districts statewide were already mask-optional, even before the new CDC guidance, CPS remains the sole district requiring universal masking.

DeVore said he plans to ask a judge for an order halting masking at city schools later this week.

Officials at Northbrook School District 28 said the district will continue its existing mitigation strategies, including the exclusion of positive COVID-19 cases and individuals with symptoms, SHIELD saliva testing, increased fresh air intake and hand sanitizing.

In addition, “remote instruction will continue to be available for students excluded from school for COVID-related reasons,” District 28 Superintendent Larry Hewitt said in a letter to parents.

“Anyone who wishes to continue or discontinue wearing a mask in school is free to do so, and we respect and support each family’s decision to act in the best interest of their children,” Hewitt said.

In Arlington Heights, engineer and mother of two Tina Fries waved goodbye to her kindergartner Monday morning, saying that while she “appreciates the value” of the CDC’s recent change of guidance, her children will remain masked in the classroom, at least for now.

“If I continue to see the trajectory of the data moving in the right direction during the next two weeks, I’ll start to feel a little better,” Fries said.

Arlington Heights District 25 Superintendent Lori Bein expressed cautious optimism at last week’s school board meeting, pointing to virus data moving steadily in a positive direction in recent weeks.

“The pandemic came in like a lion, and hopefully is going out like a lamb,” Bein said. “We’re definitely in a much calmer place than we have been for the past two years.”

kcullotta@chicagotribune.com

AdChoices
AdChoices

More from Chicago Tribune

Chicago Tribune
Chicago Tribune
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon