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Illinois bill could solidify ISBE authority to penalize schools defying public health guidelines

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - A Democratic state lawmaker wants to solidify the Illinois State Board of Education's authority to make decisions on recognition status for schools during public health emergencies. Currently, school districts can have recognition status taken away if they fail to enforce Gov. JB Pritzker's mask mandate for schools.

Rep. Edgar Gonzalez Jr says his proposal could add some teeth to the guidelines. While some across the state feel ISBE doesn't have the authority to do this, that's not the case. Current state law allows the board to have the mask guidance in place with additional enforcement measures.

Gonzalez wants to ensure that all public and private schools comply with guidance during any public health emergency. He says the bill could also remove any ambiguity around the current guidance. In this case, the main focus is the mask mandate for schools to stop the spread of COVID-19.

"Kids themselves are very much willing to follow that rule," said Gonzalez. "I think it's kind of disappointing to see a lot of people not wanting to follow that guidance because I think it's very simple."

Gonzalez said his office continues to receive calls and emails from parents upset about his proposal. But, it's still very early in the legislative process. He says the House likely won't address the bill when members return this week to vote on a massive clean energy plan. But, Gonzalez feels his proposal may have a chance for discussion during veto session in October.

House leaders must move House Bill 4135 out of the Rules Committee before it can have a debate in an actual committee. So, this plan is far from a vote on the House floor.

"Pediatric hospital beds are filling up. Kids under 12 can't get vaccinated," Gonzalez said. "In the end, we need to do everything we can to keep our kids safe."

Gonzalez personally contracted COVID-19 during May of 2020. His family had to do everything they could to stop the spread. He hopes school administrators will want to do the same. Gonzalez explained many people complaining about his proposal say they deserve freedom and liberty. He also noted they talk about local control, and he can see where they come from in the argument. However, he stressed the pandemic is still impacting the entire state.

"You really have to put some things aside and just let the state take care of something like this. If anything, at this point, we need the whole state to be united as a front against COVID," Gonzalez said.

The Chicago Democrat said he's glad many schools who initially wanted to defy the mandate changed their position. He hopes others follow suit over the coming weeks.

Gonzalez also said his proposal could help students in schools across the entire state. While some believe it's just an idea for Chicago and the surrounding suburbs, he feels everyone should have a safe learning environment. Plus, students shouldn't have to worry about graduating without a certified diploma due to wrongful actions of their school board.

"This bill is just one avenue we could take," said Gonzalez. "I think as long as everyone sticks together and wears masks, we'll be fine."

A similar proposal passed out of the House this spring on a partisan vote. Although, that legislation failed to move in the Senate.

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Mike Miletich

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