School Reopen Illinois

Students wear masks as they walk to their classroom at Oak Terrace Elementary School in Highwood, Ill., part of the North Shore school district, on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020.

(The Center Square) – Some K-12 school districts start back up for the new school year in as little as a month. Some worry there could be a repeat of last year’s “chaos” around COVID-19 guidance.

In April 2020, Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued COVID-19 executive orders prohibiting students from attending in person learning. Those orders extended for months into the following school year.

In August of last year, as school districts across Illinois were setting their back to in-person learning plans, the state came back with universal guidance for masking and exclusion of students who were close contacts to those testing positive for COVID-19, among other provisions.

State Sen. John Curran, who is on the bipartisan Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, worries there’ll be a repeat of last year.

“They were given autonomy at the local level and then at the last minute, a week before school starts, the [Illinois Department of Public Health] and the [Illinois State Board of Education] dropped new rules, standardized the process and really threw chaos into the start of the school year,” Curran, R-Lemont, told WMAY. “That is what we must avoid this year.”

This week, independent researcher Jessica Hockett said last year’s internal deliberations amid state officials she obtained show discussions on how to work around objections from parents to things like mask and testing mandates.

“These agencies, they knew that those were lawful objections,” Hockett told The Center Square. “They knew and I think that we can infer that they directed schools to do otherwise or just ‘hey, don’t even deal with these religious objections.’”

The documents Hockett obtained via the Freedom of Information Act and verified by the Illinois Department of Public Health shows an Aug. 2, 2021, email between officials with the Illinois State Board of Education about a planned webinar.

“Would you be able to join and talk about strategies for LHDs when parents defy isolation/quarantine orders,” one email said, “as well as the newer issue of religious exemption to masking, testing and quarantine?”

The state’s guidance on schools last year faced dozens of lawsuits from parents and school districts. The governor withdrew the mandates in February 2022, citing updated U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance issued the same day the Illinois Supreme Court declined to take up the governor’s appeal of a lower court ruling the mandates “null and void.”

Curran said state officials have yet to present any updated guidance this year.

“It needs to happen quickly so it has an opportunity for review, feedback from school districts on the ability to implement and parents know in plenty of time to prepare for the school year,” Curran said.

It’s unclear if new guidance would be issued, and when. A spokesman for IDPH shared a guidance “joint summary” document from June 23, 2022.

“Schools and local health departments should exercise their longstanding authority … to address all infectious disease cases among students and staff,” the guidance said. “IDPH and ISBE strongly encourage schools to follow the CDC’s operational guidance on best practices and the recommendations of their local health department on quarantine and isolation for confirmed and probable cases and close contacts. Schools are encouraged to follow the CDC’s best practices for all infectious diseases to keep students home if ill, use testing to confirm or rule out COVID-19 infection, and use Test to Stay with masking and diagnostic testing to keep asymptomatic close contacts and those linked to an outbreak in school.”

“Schools must continue to provide remote learning to any student who is under isolation or quarantine for COVID-19 based on the State Superintendent’s Remote Learning Declaration,” the guidance said.

Associate Editor

Greg Bishop reports on Illinois government and other issues for The Center Square. Bishop has years of award-winning broadcast experience and hosts the WMAY Morning Newsfeed out of Springfield.