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Morton school district to sue state in bid to implement its own COVID-19 mitigation plan

A Morton 709 school bus seen in an August 2021 photo.
Morton Community Unity School District 709
A Morton 709 school bus seen in an August 2021 photo.

The Morton 709 school district plans to challenge the state's COVID-19 mitigation measures on K-12 education in court in an attempt to implement its own rules.

The school board voted unanimously Tuesday night to authorize litigation against the Illinois State Board of Education and state superintendent Carmen Ayala. They argue the state doesn't have the authority to remove recognition status and withhold funding from schools which don't follow COVID-19 mitigations, such as mandatory masking.

"I think our lawsuit is specifically looking at ISBE, and the governor's authority to remove recognition status for not following COVID mitigations," said Superintendent Dr. Jeff Hill at Tuesday's school board meeting. "So that's, that's the specific argument. Our attorney's argument is that they don't have that authority, based on what's written down in law."

In a press release issued Wednesday, district leaders say they've exhausted all other options after writing to the governor's office, ISBE, state superintendent, and Illinois Department of Public Health to advocate for localized mitigations.

The Morton school board passed a return-to-school plan in August which made masking optional until a certain case threshold was reached. But a state order mandating masking regardless of COVID positivity rates superseded that plan before the school year began. The district is seeking a temporary restraining order allowing administrators to implement their own plan.

Dr. Diane Krall is a school board member, and a family medicine physician for OSF HealthCare. She said the pandemic is real, but the board wants local control over mitigations.

"So it's not if we get this temporary restraining order that we would no longer mitigate for the pandemic," she said at Tuesday's meeting. "It's that we would independently, based on our community, make our own mitigations and not have them dictated to us from a different area in our state."

Tazewell County currently reports a COVID-19 test positivity rate of 20.31%. Twenty-nine members of the Morton 709 staff and student body tested positive as of Jan. 14 - a 0.91% test positivity rate.

Hill noted demand for counseling services are up this school year, and said social-emotional concerns also need to be taken into consideration with COVID-19 mitigations. Morton school board members have long raised those concerns, among other critiques of mandated COVID-19 mitigations in schools.

"I think the reality is, it's just about local control," said school board president Tim Braker on Tuesday. "We have a plan that has mitigations and steps. And that accounts for our conditions here. And I think at some point, we need to say we were given the authority to run a school district and we should maintain that."

The district declined to comment further beyond the press release. The district will be represented by attorney Jay Greening of Peoria's Miller, Hall & Triggs in the case. The district is filing its own suit, not joining any similar suits filed by other districts around the state.

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.