PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — Several Central Illinois school districts are reacting to a ruling from a judge temporarily lifting COVID-related mandates in schools.

A Sangamon County judge has ruled that beginning Monday, schools would no longer have to enforce a mask or vaccine, or COVID-19 testing mandate.

“It becomes a very difficult place to be in, especially when you’re hearing from your community, and it’s not always positive. So we’re asking for a lot of patience and a lot of grace, and sometimes that’s just not what we’re receiving,” said Beth Crider, regional superintendent at Peoria County Regional Office of Education #53.

At Metamora Grade School District 1, which is one of the 146 districts part of the lawsuit, Superintendent Dr. Ben Lee said he was not surprised about the temporary restraining order. He said they were prepared either way.

“Well, we really had no idea who was going to be coming in with a mask and who was not going to,” he said.

Lee said the district is making the best of a trying situation.

“While it is a challenging situation, it’s also an opportunity to emphasize with students and teach them how to respect everyone’s differences and really focus on learning,” he said. “Our job is always going to be to focus on learning, no matter what obstacles are in our way, and we’ll continue to do that, and we’ve got the right people on board to make sure that happens.”

For districts not included in the lawsuit, like Tremont Community Unit School #702, things are even more complex.

“It’s kind of the Wild West right now for schools that were not in the suit,” said Sean Berry, superintendent of Tremont CUSD #702. “We still have the ability to require masks if the conditions call for it. That can be done in an individual classroom or a grade level, or across the whole building, or even across the whole district.”

Berry said they saw the judge’s decision as an opportunity to implement a plan the school board approved back in July. That plan allows masks to be optional.

Berry said it is the first time the district is at zero cases, so now is the right time to put the plan in place.

“Conditions are different in different districts at different times. Some districts may have lots of cases. Right now, ours doesn’t,” he said.

Crider said the decision has caused confusion and frustration across the region. She was on an hours-long call with superintendents Monday morning.

“That call was really hard because they have spent all weekend working, taking in information… to try to make the best decision they can for their local community,” she said. “Everyone is tired, everyone is frustrated, and everyone is ready to move onto some new normal, and so we’re all trying to figure that out,”

Crider said local control is the end goal.

“It will be a lot of local decision-making with the elected school boards for those communities,” she said. “I think that’s the direction we were moving before the court case, and this just sped up the timeline.”

Locally, other school districts are determining how this temporary restraining order (TRO) will affect them.

EAST PEORIA ELEMENTARY SCHOOL DISTRICT #86

East Peoria Elementary District 86’s Board of Education voted to amend its current learning plan based on the ruling.

This means starting Monday, Feb. 7, masks will be recommended, but not required, for students and staff while in the building.

Students who are sick with any cold or flu symptoms will not be allowed to attend school until those symptoms are gone.

At this time, staff members will neither encourage nor discourage mask use for students. Officials are leaving that decision up to individual families.

Masks will still be required while riding school buses.

MCLEAN COUNTY UNIT 5

Unit 5 in McLean County issued a statement saying the school district is not making any changes to its school plans regarding COVID-related mitigations.

School district officials said because Unit 5 was not one of the districts specifically named in the lawsuits, they are not subject to the ruling.

DUNLAP CUSD #323

Dunlap School District Superintendent Scott Dearman said, “While the district encourages the use of masks and COVID-19 testing, it will not exclude students or staff who choose either not to wear a mask or be tested.”

Additionally, school district officials will not exclude teachers and students based on alleged close contact unless due process is afforded and procedures from the Illinois Department of Public Health are followed.

TREMONT CUSD #702

Tremont Community School District #702 is making masks recommended, but not required to enter school.

Superintendent Sean Berry said despite the change, the school district is not abandoning COVID-19 mitigation strategies. He said should a significant surge in cases happen, masks could be temporarily required for individual classes, grade levels, or even on a school-wide basis.

Presently, there are a few instances where the school district will require masks:

  • Those that have tested positive for the virus and are returning after five days (with resolving symptoms) are supposed to mask for days 6-10. This was a key element of the new 5-day return policy for positive cases. If this is an issue, the alternative is to stay out of school for the entire 10-day period.  It remains extremely important that students stay home if they are ill. 
  • Masks must also continue to be worn on school transportation as this is a federal directive and is not addressed by the Sangamon County ruling. This was also described as such in the district’s original plan. 
  • It is still unclear what the IESA and IHSA will require for athletics and activities, but our original plan indicates the district will follow guidelines set forth by each association. Information will be communicated through the athletic department and coaches as details become more clear.

MORTON CUSD #709

Morton Superintendent Jeffrey Hill announced that masks are optional for all students and employees.

Additionally, the employee testing program will be suspended until further notice, Hill said. He noted district officials will look at household close contact quarantines during a school board meeting Tuesday.

Masks will still be required on buses. Officials will still send students with cold or flu symptoms home until those symptoms are no longer present.

CENTRAL SCHOOL DISTRICT #51

Superintendent Dale Heidbreder sent a letter to parents saying the school board is in the process of reviewing the judge’s decision, so no immediate changes have been implemented.

EL PASO GRIDLEY CUSD #11

In a Facebook post over the weekend, school district officials said starting Monday, masking will be recommended, but not required, at schools.

Metamora Township High School

In Metamora, Superintendent Sean O’Laughlin sent an update to parents about some changes the TRO will bring. According to O’Laughlin, starting Monday, masks will be optional.

Students will still be required to wear masks on busses, due to CDC guidelines.

O’Laughlin also stated that masks will be optional at extracurricular home events, but students will have to follow the host school’s policies when they are visiting other schools.

Prairie Central CUSD #8

According to a message sent to families from Superintendent Paula Crane, masks will now be recommended but not mandatory for all students and staff.

Students who are ill will still be required to quarantine, but students who are in close contact will not have to quarantine. Parents are asked to stay diligent and keep their children at home when they are sick.

Brimfield CUSD #309

According to a message from Superintendent Tony Shinall, they’re currently reviewing the judge’s decision and will share an update as soon as they determine whether the ruling will impact Brimfield students and staff.

“Thank you for your continued support of our students, teachers, and staff. While it has been a
difficult year, we will continue to push forward together.”

Limestone Community High School District #310

According to an update on Limestone’s website from Superintendent Allan S. Gresham, they will be complying with Sangamon County Circuit Judge Raylene Girschow’s TRO until otherwise directed by the Appellate Court.

While masking is still encouraged, students and staff who do not wear masks, or choose not to get tested will not be excluded.

Riverview Grade School CCSD #2

According to an update from Superintendent Tim Turner, they will be encouraging the use of face coverings, but will allow parents to make the decision for individual students.

The school will continue to identify students who are in close contact with a confirmed positive case, but will not exclude anyone who is asymptomatic who was in close contact.

“Personally, I will continue to wear a mask while at school. I believe we must lead by example and if I am recommending people choose to continue wearing a mask, I should do the same. Similarly, I would not want to be unmasked near someone who feels at risk in close proximity to an unmasked individual. To me, it is a minor inconvenience, but that is my choice to make. With that said, there will be no discrimination or harrassment against people that choose either option, masked or unmasked. We seek to be transparent and open with the public and ask for your understanding in this fluid situation,” Turner said.

This story will be updated as more information becomes available.