Judge reconsiders mask mandates, including Hononegah and Prairie Hill


Concerned parents, including Zach Meiborg, discussed the Governor's mask mandate with the Hononegah school board's legislative committee on Nov. 16, 2021. The meeting was held outdoors so no masks would be required.

On Thursday, a Sangamon County judge had yet to issue a ruling after hearing oral arguments in a class action lawsuit filed last year by parents against Gov. JB Pritzker and 145 school districts, including Prairie Hill and Hononegah. Circuit Judge Raylene Grischow had been asked to consider a motion to stop mask mandates in Illinois schools. She had also been asked to prevent schools from excluding people who have been exposed to COVID-19.

Local parents Zach and Tara Meiborg, whose children attend Prairie Hill and Hononegah, are represented by Greenville attorney Thomas DeVore in the lawsuit. The school districts are represented in the lawsuit by attorney Luke Feeney. You can read comments from Tara Meiborg and Superintendent Michael Dugan in our companion story.

More about masks at Hononegah:

Schools in Roscoe and Rockton handle judge's mask ruling in very different ways

Hononegah: Masks highly recommended but no longer required

Judge limits mask mandate at Hononegah, at least temporarily

Hononegah will continue to require masks, pending judge's ruling

Parents voice opinions on wearing of masks at Hononegah Community High School Board meeting

Hononegah begins school year, all together, three feet apart

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Attorney General Kwame Raoul’s office is defending the districts and the Illinois Education Association, along with the Illinois Federation of Teachers, has entered the case as intervenors on behalf of the teachers they represent.

The cases were originally filed individually in several Illinois counties but were later consolidated into Sangamon County Circuit Court.

At issue is whether school districts are violating state law by implementing orders from Gov. JB Pritzker and guidelines from the Illinois Department of Public Health and Illinois State Board of Education to impose certain mitigation measures in order to hold in-person instruction.

Those measures include requirements that all students, staff and visitors wear face coverings in school buildings, that students and staff be excluded from buildings if they test positive for COVID-19 or have been in close contact with someone else who has, and that school personnel be vaccinated or submit to weekly testing.

In the suit, DeVore argues that exclusions amount to a kind of “quarantine” and that under the Department of Public Health Act, schools cannot exclude students for public health concerns without their parents’ consent or a quarantine order from a public health department.

“The plaintiffs have a right to insist the students not be excluded from school, and denied their right to an in-person education, except as provided by law,” the lawsuit states.

“Quite simply, the defendants are infringing upon the lawful right of the students, and of their parents or guardians, to be free to choose for themselves whether mask wearing as a treatment, or type of modified quarantine, for the purpose of limiting the spread of an infectious disease, is, absent a court order, appropriate,” the lawsuit states

DeVore has been the attorney in numerous lawsuits representing businesses and individuals challenging Pritzker’s executive orders during the pandemic. In one, he represented state Sen. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, a Republican candidate for governor.

Judge Grischow, however, threw out that case in December 2020, finding that the governor has the authority to issue multiple, successive disaster proclamations stemming from one ongoing disaster.

In a motion to dismiss the case, the Illinois Education Association argued that masking and exclusions are not “quarantines” and therefore are not preempted by the Public Health Act. It also argues that the joint guidance issued by IDPH and ISBE gives school districts lawful authority to impose mask and exclusion mandates.

In a separate filing, the Illinois Federation of Teachers argued that the public health interest involved in preventing the spread of COVID-19 outweighs any individual right of the students and parents who are challenging the mandates.

“Those parents, students, teachers and staff who are not before the court have a compelling interest in the enforcement of mitigation measures that reflect the best judgments of policymakers facing rapidly changing circumstances,” attorneys for the IFT wrote.

The case against the school districts has generated significant public interest. During a hearing on Jan. 5, Grischow noted in a journal entry, “the court and the court's receptionist began receiving emails from outside sources setting forth their position on the issues being argued in the case.”

“The court did not review the emails and turned them over to the U.S. Marshals office to review for security reasons,” Grischow wrote. “The emails will not be kept or reviewed by the court. Any opinion rendered in these matters will be based on the law and not personal opinions.”

This story is based on reporting from Peter Hancock of Capitol News Illinois, which is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide, including Rockton-Roscoe News. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

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