Education & Youth

School district 152 going mask optional, but 'highly recommends' masks for all staff, students, and visitors

Masks initially had been required for this year's return to in-person learning.

School officials statewide are relaxing mask-wearing enforcement, including at Harvey School District 152. Google Images Screen Capture
School officials statewide are relaxing mask-wearing enforcement, including at Harvey School District 152. Google Images Screen Capture

More schools across the south suburbs are going mask optional after an Illinois appellate court ruled last week that the governor’s office cannot enforce mask-wearing in schools.

The move gives school officials statewide more agency over safety measures in schools, including mask mandates, contract tracing, and weekly COVID-19 testing.

Harvey School District 152 is one of those districts going mask optional, Superintendent John Thomas announced Monday evening.

“In light of the Court’s opinion, masks will be optional for all District 152 staff, students, and visitors,” Thomas said in the statement.

“Although masks will be optional, the District highly recommends and encourages all staff, students, and visitors to wear masks as we continue our efforts to maintain a safe and healthy school environment for everyone,” Thomas added.

Masks were required for the 2021 - 2022 academic year upon return to in-person learning.

District 152 joins other south suburban districts like Cook County Elementary District 130 in Blue Island and Homewood Elementary District 153 which are relaxing mitigation measures.

Of the state’s 852 school districts, 760, or roughly 90%, have now decided to give students, staff, and administrators the flexibility to decide if they would like to wear a mask, said Jason Nevel, Illinois Association of School Administrators Director of Social Media and Communications.

Even though schools across Cook County are no longer enforcing mask-wearing, schools that still mandate masks are largely concentrated in Cook County, Nevel said. Chicago Public Schools, the largest school district in the state and 3rd large in America, is still requiring masks.

Peoria Public Schools and Urbana City Schools are other large school districts that still require masks in the face of the ruling.

Carmen I. Ayala, Illinois State Board of Education Superintendent, issued a statement in response to last week’s denial of the state’s appeal.

We are disappointed in the appellate court’s decision and concerned for the health of those in schools – particularly vulnerable children and adults,” Ayala said.

But the ISBE does not appear to be deterred.

“ISBE, the Illinois Department of Public Health, and the Governor’s Office are working with the Attorney General to request an expedited review of this decision from the Supreme Court,” Ayala added.

In January, hundreds of parents in nearly 150 school districts sought a temporary restraining order on mask mandates in Illinois schools after filing a lawsuit against the state over mask mandates in schools. On February 4, Sangamon County Judge Raylene Grischow ruled in favor of the parents, tossing the state’s mask mandate in schools.

District 152 was not named in the lawsuit.

“The grave consequence of this misguided decision is that schools in these districts no longer have sufficient tools to keep students and staff safe while COVID-19 continues to threaten our communities – and this may force schools to go remote,”said Governor J.B. Pritzker in a press release days after the decision.

Governor Pritzker’s office then asked the Illinois State Attorney General Kwame Raoul’s office to file an expedited appeal with the Fourth District Appellate Court in Springfield. The appeal was filed February 7 and was denied last Thursday.

Some school officials abandoned mask mandates after the temporary injunction while others awaited a decision on the state’s appeal.

As state officials awaited a decision on the appeal, Pritzker announced current mitigation measures like indoor mask mandate would be lifted February 28 if the current downward trend in COVID-19 cases continued.

Schools were the intended exception, where state officials have argued mask mandates, contact tracing, and weekly testing allow schools to continue in-person learning.

Raoul echoed the governor’s sentiments in the same press release, adding the decision harms immunocompromised people, sending the message “that all students do not have the same right to safely access schools and classrooms in Illinois, particularly if they have disabilities or other health concerns.”

He added the decision “prioritizes a relatively small group of plaintiffs who refuse to follow widely-accepted science over the rights of other students, faculty and staff to enter schools without the fear of contracting a virus that has claimed the lives of more than 31,000 Illinois residents – or taking that virus home to their loved ones.”

In early January, t hree of the four school districts that service the Harvey community — School District 152, West Harvey-Dixmoor School District 147, and Thornton Township High Schools District 205 — all went on adaptive pause for two weeks as Omicron surged before returning to in-person learning.

Mask mandates, much like vaccination and capacity restrictions, show how politically polarizing health policy measures have become during the pandemic.

Parents and students in some mostly white school districts like Arlington Heights, which abandoned mask mandates, have protested them, but predominantly Black and Brown school districts across the state largely have not.

Thornton District 205 Superintendent Nathaniel Cunningham, Jr. released a statement earlier this month indicating the district was not named in the lawsuit and still intended to enforce mask-wearing.

It is not yet known if West Harvey-Dixmoor District 147 or South Holland District 151, which also serves the Harvey community and currently requires mask-wearing, will follow District 152.

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