CHICAGO—The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) has punished 37 public school districts with a total enrollment of nearly 30,000 students as of Aug. 23 for not following Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s school mask mandate, according to ISBE records.
The schools have been placed on probation. If they don’t conform to the mask mandate within two months, they will be unrecognized by ISBE, lose state funding, and can’t take part in certain statewide athletic competitions, according to a letter sent to district superintendents from Illinois State Superintendent of Education Carmen I. Ayala.
“The [governor’s] executive order has the force of law,” Ayala said in the letter. “I understand the pressure some school and district leaders may be facing from community members. … However, noncompliance is not an option.”
She said nonconforming schools might bring upon themselves “extraordinary legal liability” with no insurance to cover the monetary damages.
Many schools told ISBE that they aren’t against masks, but rather the loss of local control. They said the mask mandate has driven wedges between schools and parents, eroding years of trust and goodwill, and instead of a top-down mandate, schools should have the right to work out their own COVID-19 measures along with parents.
Kyle Thompson, superintendent of a 22,000-student school district in central Illinois, told ISBE board members at the Aug. 18 meeting that school board members and parents had gone to war with each other over the state mask mandate in his district.
“These hard feelings will linger and affect our quality of education for years to come. The tension is unbearable,” Thompson said. “Too often, our politicians at the state capital don’t realize the cost of their decisions.”
If the schools are left to make their own decisions, Thompson said, they are held accountable by the families they serve. “If they land on the wrong side of a decision, without divisive and polarizing outside influence, they are able to carefully work together to resolve it,” he said.
Tonya Evans, superintendent of a 1,000-student school district in central Illinois, told the ISBE board: “We want our parents to decide what is best for their children with the wearing of masks. We want our focus to be on educating students, which we feel we do well.”
Though schools in her district want to abide by the mandate, Evans said many parents have said they will not abide by it, and some have threatened to sue. Her schools are considering getting police on campus for fear of unrest.
Bob Bardwell, superintendent of a regional school district in Woodford County, Illinois, told the ISBE board: “This is not about masks. The mask mandate is just a symptom of the overarching problem of top-down leadership and government overreach.”
“This cannot be done with a one-size-fits-all approach. Parents feel they have no voice, and school districts feel they have no voice. We are asking you to give us a voice,” Bardwell said.
Pritzker requires all students, staff, and visitors at Illinois public and private schools to wear masks indoors through an Aug. 4 executive order. His mandate came shortly after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a recommendation of universal indoor masking at U.S. schools.
There were originally 45 schools on probation, now there are 37 as of Aug. 24.
In Florida, the roles of the state and the school districts are reversed when it comes to mask mandates. The administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis has required school districts to allow parents to opt their children out of mask-wearing. A number of school districts, all but one of them Democrat-leaning, have defied the administration’s wishes. Two of the defiant districts are now facing financial penalties from the Florida Department of Education.
In Florida’s case, President Joe Biden’s administration has waded into the dispute, promising to repay the defiant school districts, whose funds would be docked by the state, from the $7 billion pandemic relief pot allocated to Florida’s schools.
Ivan Pentchoukov contributed to this report.