Late Friday night, a downstate Illinois judge sparked widespread controversy and confusion by striking down Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s universal masking requirement for students and staff in public schools. The judge’s decision came in response to a lawsuit naming well over 100 Illinois school districts, where students and teachers no longer have to wear masks or get tested for COVID-19 regularly, even if they are unvaccinated.

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul is appealing the judge’s order, and many officials expect Raoul’s effort to succeed and restore Pritzker’s statewide mask mandate for schools. For now, though, principals and administrators in districts across the state will have to uphold the mandate on their own or make masks optional if their district was included in the lawsuit.

The situation became so chaotic that some Illinois school districts even moved to remote learning or canceled classes on Monday to avoid disruptions from the debate over masking.

Evanston/Skokie School District 65 and Evanston Township High School District 202 were not named in the lawsuit, and both districts reaffirmed their commitment to universal masking to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. 

“ETHS, like most districts in Illinois, is not part of the lawsuit,” Superintendent Eric Witherspoon wrote to students and families on Monday morning. “At ETHS we follow the science, and the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and IDPH [Illinois Department of Public Health] are recommending masks. For the safety of everyone at ETHS, we will continue to follow the public health recommendations and wear masks to protect one another from the COVID virus.”

This latest battle over masks and COVID-19 policies in schools also made headlines amid calls from Evanston parents for District 65 to allow students to take off their masks during outdoor activities like drop off, pick up and recess. Several parents told the RoundTable that making masks optional outside is a low-risk way for students to get a break from masks during the day, communicate with others more easily and see each other’s faces.

Julie Schatz, who has two elementary school kids and works as a speech pathologist in a different district, said most other school districts in the northern suburbs have not required students to wear masks during recess this year. For young children in particular, being able to see facial expressions and watch someone sound out words plays an important role in their social and intellectual development, according to Schatz. 

“Obviously, the pandemic has had a huge social-emotional toll on our kids, and we might not see the impact yet,” Schatz said. “There’s a mental health emergency among children, so why wouldn’t we do whatever we can to make things a little bit more normal in a safe way? It seems overwhelmingly clear to me that outside, kids should be able to play.”

To defend their position, Schatz and other parents pointed to the low transmission of the virus in outdoor settings, where people can safely take off their masks, if only for 30 minutes of recess. The CDC still recommends that anyone two years and older wear a mask indoors, but “in general, people do not need to wear masks when outdoors,” according to the CDC website.

In its official guidance for K-12 schools, the CDC only recommends masks outside for unvaccinated individuals who are in a crowded space or “sustained close contact” with other people. 

Nina Tatarowicz, who also has two District 65 elementary school kids and another preschool-aged child, said her perspective on masks in schools started to change a few months ago, when she learned that other countries like the United Kingdom do not require masks for students in classrooms. 

“Evanston has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country, both adults and kids,” Tatarowicz told the RoundTable. “Why is it that we can’t at least follow the guidance of taking off masks outdoors being so well protected? And when do our officials want this to end, or do they ever want it to end? When is it going to be OK to be normal again?”

Both Schatz and Tatarowicz spoke during the public comment portion of last week’s District 65 board meeting, arguing that children in Evanston desperately need and deserve at least some semblance of normalcy. In response to the push from some parents for more flexibility on outdoor masking, Melissa Messinger, the district’s Executive Director of Communications, said administrators have been in regular contact with local health officials and medical advisors on COVID-19 policies in schools. 

“While we are cautiously optimistic about the reduction of positive COVID-19 cases in our community and schools, we are waiting until the recent surge has subsided to relax any of our current practices,” Messinger said. “Outdoor masking is something that we look to revisit with health officials in the coming weeks.”

Tatarowicz and Schatz also emphasized that they feel the district has placed too much of the pandemic burden on kids through excessive mask requirements and sudden schedule changes. Given the well-documented mental health crisis facing children, the costs of too many COVID-19 mitigation policies outweigh the benefits, according to Tatarowicz. Plus, by making masks optional outside, any students or parents who still prefer to wear a mask in those settings can continue to do so if that makes them more comfortable, which Schatz called a “no-brainer.”  

“I expect our district to put our kids first, and if they need to pivot at this point and change a policy that’s detrimental to kids, that’s harming our kids, I think they need to accept that and do it,” Tatarowicz said. “They should be here to prioritize children and their education, and make sure that whatever policy that they put in place is not harming our children. And I do believe that this policy is harming our children.” 

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...