Students wear masks while walking the halls during a passing period at Riverside Brookfield High School on the first day of in-person instruction in October. | Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer

Despite Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s announcement last week that his proposed mask mandate rollback at the end of February would not include schools, students at a number of local institutions are already mask optional and more will follow suit soon.

Last week, the Archdiocese of Chicago announced that the Catholic elementary schools they run in Cook and Lake Counties would become mask optional. St. Mary School in Riverside opted for mask-optional learning last week, and Nazareth High School in LaGrange Park and Trinity High School in River Forest quickly followed suit.

The Landmark has been unable to find out how widely the mask-optional policy has been adopted by students at St. Mary’s. Principal Nicole Nolazco referred all questions to the Archdiocese of Chicago, which did not provide any information. 

“St. Mary School has not counted masked/unmasked students since the mask policy changed,” said Susan Thomas, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese in an email.

Pritzker’s announcement that he was partially lifting his indoor mask mandate on Feb. 28 came on the heels of Sangamon County Circuit Court Judge Raylene Grischow issuing a temporary restraining order on Feb. 4 voiding Pritzker’s school mask mandate in certain districts that were party to a lawsuit filed there.

Grischow’s ruling is being appealed. In the meantime, many public school districts across Illinois have gone mask optional despite Pritzker’s executive order.

LaGrange-Brookfield School District 102 has changed its policy to “mask recommended,” meaning that students will not be required to wear face masks, effective Feb. 16.

The decision to drop the mask requirement was made by District 102 Superintendent Kyle Schumacher after consulting with school board President Michael Melendez. Melendez spoke separately with the other school board members to make sure there was no disagreement.

District 102 school board member Ed Campbell, a Brookfield resident and professor of microbiology and immunology at Loyola University, said he supported the decision to go mask optional but added his children will continue to wear masks in school.

“Speaking only for myself, I would not have OK with the decision during the omicron surge, but given that numbers are declining so rapidly and most districts that have gone mask optional still had high levels of mask wearing, I was OK with the decision,” Campbell told the Landmark in a text message.

At a Feb. 10 meeting of the Brookfield-LaGrange Park District 95 school board that featured many public comments both for and against masking, Superintendent Mark Kuzniewski announced that District 95 would likely become mask optional on Feb. 28.

On Feb. 14, Kuzniewski reiterated his intention to make face masks only a recommendation, not a requirement.

“Starting on Feb. 28 that’s where we’re heading and we’re currently in our planning stage now and we’re very thankful that as we are getting into this, we have some time,” Kuzniewski told the Landmark in a telephone interview.  “We’ll have a number of things that we’ll recommend but not require.”

Kuzniewski said the two S.E. Gross Middle School students who refused to wear masks on Feb. 7 and were kept isolated in the school’s library were back to wearing masks in school on Feb. 11 after he announced the district would relax its rules on Feb. 28.

Riverside Elementary School District 96 Superintendent Martha Ryan-Toye said the District 96 school board will discuss masking policy at its Feb. 16 meeting.

Both Komarek School District 94 and Lyons-Brookfield District 103 are maintaining their policies of requiring all in school buildings to be masked.

Two students at Riverside Brookfield High School who refused to wear masks in school last week and were kept isolated from their classmates in an office are back to wearing masks RBHS Principal Hector Freytas said.

At last week’s school board meeting, RBHS District 208 Superintendent Kevin Skinkis said that while RBHS is keeping its masking requirement in place for now, he hopes that the rules can be relaxed in the not too distant future as COVID cases continue to decrease. 

“Only time will tell,” Skinkis said.

Nowhere has masking been more controversial in our area than at Lyons Township High School. In the wake of Grischow’s ruling, approximately 125 students refused to wear face masks on Feb. 8 and were kept isolated by other students in school cafeterias and other locations. Anti-mask students and adults held a rally outside LTHS on Feb. 8 after school. 

But, by Feb. 14, the number of LTHS students who were still refusing to wear masks was down to about 10, according to Jennifer Bialobok, the district’s community relations coordinator. 

The school board’s committee of the whole meeting on Feb. 14 again featured parents speaking strongly against requiring masks and others who favored the mask requirement during the meeting’s public comment period. A couple anti-mask parents threatened to sue LTHS over its mask policy.

One of the students who has refused to wear a mask, sophomore Adisyn Schaefer, addressed the school board during the public comment period of the meeting.

“I’ve sat quietly and respectfully in a room separated from masked students,’ Schaefer said. “You’ve tried isolating me, threatening suspension, taking away in person education, and not only that, but three bathroom breaks, no phones.” 

Schaeffer said that students should have the option to decide for themselves whether to wear masks.

Earlier in the meeting, school board President Kari Dillon said that LTHS was not bound by Grischow’s ruling. 

“The circuit court ruling in Sangamon County has no jurisdiction over Illinois school districts including LTHS,” Dillon said. “Moreover, we have been in constant contact with our legal counsel and are adhering to their legal advice and recommendations during this interim period. We anticipate an appellate court decision very soon which will likely have further implications regarding the governor’s executive order.”

The Illinois Appellate Court is expected to issue a ruling on the Sangamon County case this week.