ILLINOIS - An Illinois appellate court has blocked Governor J.B. Pritzker's appeal of a downstate judge's ruling over masks in schools.
The decision leaves it up to individual school districts on whether they will impose a mask mandate for students and teachers.
The ruling late Thursday comes a week after the Democratic governor lifted the requirement that face coverings be worn in most indoor spaces — but not for schools — as the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations plummet.
About two weeks ago, a judge in Sangamon County ruled Gov. JB Pritzker's mask mandate invalid. While the governor appealed that ruling to Illinois' Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, the mask mandate order itself expired on Sunday.
When Gov. Pritzker asked the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (JCAR) to renew the mask mandate Tuesday, lawmakers refused. The vote was a stunning bipartisan 9-0, with two lawmakers abstaining.
Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul appealed the ruling Feb. 7, seeking a temporary restraining order. He argued enforcing the judge’s ruling could mean "widespread transmission" of the coronavirus "within schools and in the broader community, increased hospitalizations and deaths, and school staff shortages" leading to a return to remote learning or even school closures.
Pritzker argued the ruling only applied to the school districts named in the lawsuits. He counseled any district not covered by the judge’s order to continue requiring masks for students and staff.
A statement from Pritzker's office reads, "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. The administration is working with the Attorney General to request an expedited review of this decision from the Supreme Court. 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."
The judge’s decree also invalidated other Pritzker orders, including required vaccinations for school employees.
The appellate court sought additional information this week after a legislative oversight commission weighed in against school masks. Pritzker implemented emergency rules for masks in schools on Sept. 17. When the Illinois Department of Public Health sought to reinstate them this week, they needed an OK from the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, a bipartisan, bicameral panel of legislators. Seeking more involvement from the Legislature, the committee voted unanimously against adoption.
The appellate court called the challenge "moot" after lawmakers in Springfield voted against extending the mandate in Illinois schools.
"The existence of an actual controversy is a prerequisite for appellate jurisdiction, and a reviewing court will generally not decide matters that are abstract, hypothetical, or moot," the appeals court ruled.
The drama plays out before a landscape of declining COVID-19 danger a month after illness from the highly contagious omicron variant peaked. New cases and hospitalizations have fallen so far that Pritzker declared on Feb. 9 that the requirement for face coverings at most indoor locations would be lifted on Feb. 28.
The Associated Press contributed to this report