This letter is the full text of the letter Carmen Ayala, Illinois State Superintendent of Education, sent to school district leaders. The emphasis and the connections are his.
I know many of you are in a difficult situation. The pandemic has forced us to navigate changing circumstances and directions. I deeply appreciate your leadership, courage and integrity that you have shown in extremely difficult times. Many of you have asked for clarification on the steps the Illinois State Board of Education will take to enforce the universal indoor masking requirement, and this communication aims to provide that clarity. .
As you know, Executive Order 2021-18, which went into effect last Wednesday, requires all students, staff and visitors to wear indoor masks at all P-12 schools in Illinois. Governor Pritzker took this step after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended it.
The goal of the universal indoor masking requirement is to ensure that all students can safely walk to school in person this fall. We know that the consistent and correct use of the mask is the easiest and most effective way to keep students safe in school, where they can learn and develop to their full potential. Masks work best when everyone is wearing one. CDC Research Finds Schools To Be Safe when they have prevention strategies in place, as documented in updated guidelines from the ISBE and the Illinois Department of Public Health.
The Delta variant causes an increase in the number of cases and hospitalizations, and masking is a key strategy to protect student access to in-person learning and to ensure the safety of students, staff and the community who surround them. We don’t throw our umbrellas in the rain because we’re not wet. We must keep our umbrella until the storm passes.
The executive decree has the force of law. I understand the pressure some school and district leaders may experience from community members, and I will provide all the support you need to understand, communicate and keep order.
However, non-compliance is not an option. I will not compromise the health and safety of students or staff, and I will not even risk the life of a child.
Local school boards, schools and school districts do not have the power to refuse the governor’s order requiring universal interior masking in schools. This not only puts the health and safety of students at risk, but also exposes the district to extraordinary legal liability – potentially without any insurance to cover the damage. I strongly recommend that each district consult with their legal counsel and insurer to fully understand the implications.
In addition, ISBE has and will use its regulatory authority in accordance with 23 Ill Admin. Code 1.20, to ensure that school districts protect students and staff; if school districts do not, it risks being recognized by the state.
A district would have multiple opportunities to remedy impairments that present a health hazard or danger to students or staff before they go unnoticed. A district would first see its recognition status change to “On probation” and be asked to submit a corrective action plan. Failure to fill the gaps would result in non-recognition, which means complete loss of access to state funding and loss of the school’s ability to participate in Illinois High School Association athletic competitions. and the Illinois Elementary School Association.
These are not actions that anyone at ISBE wishes to take and these actions should not be necessary. School districts have a moral and legal obligation to follow public health requirements and advice to ensure the safety of their students and staff. Wearing the mask is simple, safe and easy. I know it can be uncomfortable at times, but so are football helmets and seat belts. Sometimes we have to put up with a little discomfort for security reasons and because it is the law.
We have so many important issues to face as we begin the school year, and we want to start the year positively for all of our students. I ask you to respect the mask requirement, communicate it to your school communities, and celebrate the return to learning in person.
Thank you for your partnership and support.
Dr Carmen I. Ayala
State Superintendent of Education
Illinois State Board of Education