An Illinois appellate court dismissed Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s request to overturn a Sangamon County judge’s order that lifted the mask mandate in 168 school districts across Illinois, likely paving the way for more school districts throughout the state to make face coverings optional for students.
The ruling, issued just before midnight Thursday by the Fourth District Appellate Court, declared the governor’s appeal moot because a General Assembly committee declined on Tuesday to reissue rules from the Illinois Department of Health requiring masks to be worn in school buildings.
While members of that committee said they did not want to act until the appellate court made a decision on Pritzker’s request to stop the order lifting the mask mandate from taking effect while the lawsuit proceeds, their decision appears to have doomed the appeal itself.
“None of the rules found by the circuit court to be null and void are currently in effect. ... Accordingly, for the following reasons, we dismiss defendant's appeal because the expiration of the emergency rules renders this appeal moot,” according to the opinion written by Justice John Turner.
Justice Thomas Harris concurred with Turner’s decision, while Justice Lisa Holder White concurred in part and dissented in part.
While the appellate court’s decision means the state can’t impose such mitigations, school districts are permitted to require students to wear masks or follow other rules to stop the spread of COVID-19.
The decision does not apply to Chicago Public Schools, where an agreement between the district and the Chicago Teachers Union will require students to wear masks until August.
Pritzker will appeal the decision to the Illinois Supreme Court, spokesperson Jordan Abudayyeh said in a statement.
"The governor is disappointed in the appellate court’s decision and concerned for the health of those in schools — particularly vulnerable children and adults — and the ability to continue in-person learning," Abudayyeh said. "In the meantime, the governor urges everyone to continue following the doctors’ advice to wear masks so students can remain safely learning in classrooms, and is encouraged that the court made it clear that school districts can continue to keep their own mitigations in place."
Pritzker on Wednesday said students in Illinois schools should still be wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 because of an executive order that he issued was still in effect. The decision by the appellate court rejected that argument.
Pritzker announced Feb. 9 that he would lift the state’s mask mandate for most indoor public spaces on Feb. 28 while keeping the mask mandate in place in schools for several additional weeks at a minimum.
Masks will continue to be required in congregate settings, including long-term care facilities, where people are forced to have close contact, Pritzker said. Federal rules remain in place that require masks in hospitals and on public transportation.
Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said she still strongly recommends that people wear masks, especially in crowded indoor spaces.