August 02, 2021

Illinois teachers unions: Vaccinations, masks critical to preventing COVID-19 in schools

Illinois Education Association members are “so thrilled” that most students and teachers will return to the classroom full time, union president says

The state’s two largest teachers unions believe two mitigation strategies can go far in preventing the spread of the COVID-19 virus in schools: getting vaccinated for those who are eligible, and wearing masks for those who aren’t.

The 135,000-member Illinois Education Association backs the guidance set forth by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which indicates people who are inoculated can go without face coverings if they so choose, but unvaccinated individuals should continue to wear them, union President Kathi Griffin said in a written statement.

The Illinois State Board of Education passed a resolution in May requiring schools to offer daily in-person learning during the 2021-22 academic year, with some exceptions.

Illinois Education Association members are “so thrilled” that most students and teachers will return to the classroom full time, Griffin said, but communities need to keep COVID-19 case numbers low so schools can remain open.

“The pandemic hasn’t ended,” she said. “It’s still important to keep the unvaccinated safe and healthy. And we believe both that there should be layering of other mitigations put into place and that we should continue to follow the science as the situation evolves.”

Kids under the age of 12 are not currently eligible for the vaccine. Drug manufacturer Pfizer/BioNTech is expected to request emergency authorization from the federal government for younger children in the near future -- but not before classes begin next month.

School districts should be implementing an assortment of protocols, including masking, distancing and testing, said Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers. One of his most critical concerns is ventilation in school buildings, where social distancing can often be a challenge because of classroom sizes.

The Illinois Federation of Teachers represents 103,000 teachers and paraprofessionals in prekindergarten through 12th-grade districts, as well as faculty and staff members at community colleges and universities.

Federal guidance related to COVID-19 can help in back-to-school negotiations between unions and district officials statewide, Montgomery said. But above all else, parents want their kids to be safe when they send them off to school, he said.

“The best way for that to happen is to get their kids vaccinated,” he said. “If they can’t because of the age cutoff, then they’ve got to wear masks.”