CENTRAL ILLINOIS (WMBD) — To mask or not to mask made plenty of headlines in 2021, especially in schools and athletic programs.

In early August, Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued a mandate that masks must be worn in all Illinois schools.

This reversed his announcement the month before, when he said districts would be allowed to determine their own masking policies.

Bradley University made an announcement just days after that it would adhere, and also require masks for all visitors, staff, and students. The policy affected everyone on campus, regardless of vaccination status. At the time, vaccinations were not required but were strongly recommended.

For the rest of Illinois educators and students, teachers were required to get vaccinated or undergo weekly COVID-19 testing. If the worker refused, they could not return to work.

At the time, State Rep. Ryan Spain (R-Peoria) said he thought more people, including local units of government, should have a say in these sweeping decisions.

“The issue with mask mandates is that people throughout the state of Illinois are tired of all the decisions for the state of Illinois being made by one person. We have to restore checks and balances.”

rep. ryan spain (Peoria)

A number of school districts across the state agreed. The Brimfield School District opted to oppose the mask ruling at first, but eventually conceded after their state funding was threatened by Pritzker. The Heyworth and Morton Community School Districts made the same decision, but ultimately reversed them as well for the same reason.

Morton Superintendent Jeff Hill said the district’s attorney advised them to follow the mandate. Yet, not all board members agreed, and some came under fire for posting their personal beliefs on their own Facebook pages.

In McLean County, Unit 5 leaders decided masks would be mandatory back in July, before the governor’s mandate.

However, some schools were not afraid to lose state funding and opted to defy the mandate anyway. In northeast Illinois, the Kankakee Trinity Academy lost not only its state funding but state recognition after refusing to adhere to the mandate.

Instead, school leaders chose to seek accreditation from the Association of Christian Schools International.

Although it seemed there was nothing to do but follow the mandate, local superintendents did not give up the fight. A public opinion editorial was signed by 80 superintendents across the state, including eight in the Central Illinois region.

In the letter, superintendents regarded the top-down decisions from the governor and Illinois State Board of Education as, “a continuation of the pattern of higher officials substituting their judgments for those of local school boards.” 

They also cited concerns about scientific communication on COVID-19 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) being “inconsistent at best.”

After no changes were made, parents from 145 districts in Illinois filed a lawsuit against the state regarding COVID-19 policies.

Masks create disorder on the court

Back in August, Pritzker announced an update to the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) All-Sports Policy that required masks to be worn for all indoor Illinois High School Association (IHSA) athletic events regardless of an individual’s vaccination status. 

The mask directive for indoor athletic events applied to student-athletes, coaches, officials, game personnel, and fans for indoor sports. Outdoor sports did not require masks.

“Illinois high school student-athletes and coaches have been resilient in dealing with myriad mitigations and unexpected changes over the past year. We hope all Illinoisans do their part to stop the spread of COVID-19, so we can quickly move beyond this and remove masks from indoor athletic events.”

IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson.

However, not everyone was on board with the plan.

The IHSA was sued over the mandate by an attorney from Litchfield, who previously sued the Pritzker administration over the stay-at-home order.

Thomas Devore was the attorney with Silver Lake Group who represented student-athletes and all minors that were in the same position as them. 

Devore said IHSA did not have the constitutional authority to enforce student-athletes to wear masks during practice.

In the lawsuit, Devore argued student-athletes would suffer “irreparable damage” as a result of wearing a mask while playing sports. Another claim was that the guideline was the “illegal product of collusion” between IHSA and state agencies.

Matt Troha, the assistant executive director for the IHSA said in an email dated Dec. 9 they expected an update on the lawsuit soon.

“We anticipate that some recent changes by ISBE related to probation and nonrecognition status could make the case moot, which could open the possibility of having it dismissed.”

matt troha, IHSA Assistant executive director

For local colleges, the mask update applied to their athletic departments as well.

Health Departments mask up to battle virus

Just after the school year ended, the Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus had risen to dominance in the U.S., shortly becoming the main strain that health departments focused their attention on.

As the 2021 school year began, local health departments strongly recommended all schools should start the year with a universal masking policy to help combat the spread of the virus.

Peoria City/County Health Department made the recommendation days after the CDC issued guidance encouraging all K-12 students to wear a mask indoors, regardless of their vaccination status.

Once COVID-19 vaccines had been approved by both the FDA and the CDC, masking took a backseat to vaccinations. Local health departments urged residents in Central Illinois to get vaccinated as soon as they could.

Fast-forward to August 2021, and a new variant of the virus was detected in the U.S. The Delta variant presented new challenges for health departments at a time when everyone in the state wanted to get back to normal. Since Delta is nearly twice as contagious as previous variants of the virus, it posed a significant threat to the idea of “normality.”

If the Delta variant signaled a new wave of COVID-19 cases on the horizon, the Omicron variant ushered the wave forward with no signs of stopping. A surge in COVID-19 cases hit Central Illinois, leaving hospitals struggling to keep up. 

For two days in a row, the McLean County Health Department reported 100% of ICU beds in use. Those numbers have hardly fluctuated since the December report

On Dec. 16, Peoria City/County Health Administrator Monica Hendrickson said the area was averaging 290 new COVID-19 cases daily, and Peoria County alone averaged 131 new cases each day. Hendrickson said these numbers haven’t been this high since March.

“This is the worst part about what our current situation is — to have our numbers be similar to March, a time period where vaccinations were not readily available, and we did have testing just being more and more accessible. We’re in a totally different situation.”

Monica Hendrickson, PEoria City/County Health Department Administrator

While vaccination is effective in combating the spread of the virus, Hendrickson said the most recent surge is mostly due to those who are not vaccinated against the virus yet. 

With Peoria, Tazewell, and Woodford Counties barely having more than 50% of their populations vaccinated, Hendrickson is at a loss for words, describing the situation as both “disappointing” and “severe.”

“In a season of hope, in a season of future and thinking of a new year and those prospects, I find myself, and other public healthcare professionals, in sadness,” Hendrickson said. “I’d understand if we were in a situation where we had limited vaccinations. I would understand if we were in a situation where testing just dropped off the face of the Earth, and we didn’t even have treatment capacity. But we do, it really is a loss of words.”

Hendrickson did specify that the Tri-County area has not seen a large amount of school-based outbreaks, and she attributed that to masking policies being implemented.

Ultimately, Gov. Pritzker agrees and has publicly stated the mask mandate will stay in place until hospitalizations drop.