Gov. JB Pritzker announced Wednesday a mask mandate for all Illinois schools – preschool through grade 12 – and day cares, effective immediately, and some state employees will face a COVID-19 vaccine mandate by the first week of October.
The mask mandate brings the state in line with U.S. Centers for Disease Prevention and Control guidance, which recommends that teachers and students older than 2 wear a mask indoors, regardless of vaccination status.
“I had hoped that a state mask requirement in schools wouldn’t be necessary, but it is,” Pritzker said.
For local districts, the fact that a decision has been made is a welcome one, regardless of what that decision is.
“We feel that it’s the job of public health officials to let us know what we should do,” said Kent Bugg, superintendent of Coal City Community Unit School District 1, which was scheduled to discuss COVID-19 mitigations at its board meeting Wednesday night. “We are in the business of educating kids. We don’t know about public health. If the school caught fire, we would call the fire department, but we wouldn’t stand outside the school and ask the fire department how they are going to fight the fire. That’s their job.”
Morris Community High School District 101 Superintendent Craig Ortiz seconded Bugg’s relief.
“We are disappointed on one level in that a lot of people were looking forward to making that decision for themselves,” Ortiz said. “On the other hand, it makes it easier for the school boards and administrations to move forward. We have been battling for the last couple of months to have something definitive come from the state.
“It will also make it easier on school nurses. If there is a policy of masks mandated and 3 feet apart, that could mean fewer quarantines.”
Ortiz said the decision comes just in time for his district, as students are set to return to the classroom Aug. 18.
“We’re only two weeks away from school starting,” he said. “Now we know. It was frustrating there for a while because we didn’t have any guidance from the state on what we should do.”
Days before Pritzker’s announcement, Ortiz had sent a letter to District 101 parents saying that mask-wearing was recommended for unvaccinated individuals but that “there will be no universal mask mandate.”
In addition to mandating mask-wearing in schools, Pritzker announced updates to athletics and quarantine policies for schools.
Pritzker said all high school athletes will have to be masked for indoor practice and competition, while coaches and athletes in outdoor sports will not have to mask because the rate outdoor transmission of COVID-19 is low.
“If the mandate is to wear masks indoors, we will be able to have our [physical education] classes outside and let the kids take their masks off for an hour,” Ortiz had said ahead of the guidance being released.
The state also updated its quarantine protocol in schools, giving a new option to students and teachers who have been identified as a close contact of a positive COVID-19 case to stay in class.
Close contacts must be tested on days 1, 3, 5 and 7 after exposure. As long as close contacts remain negative, they are not required to quarantine.
The state’s largest teachers union outside of Chicago applauded the mask mandate.
“We all want to get back to normal. Let’s pull together and take care of one another. Vax up and mask up. We owe it to our students and we owe it to each other,” Kathi Griffin, president of the Illinois Education Association, said in a news release. “We’re so thankful to have leadership in this state that won’t let the virus fester and grow. But it us up to all of us to bring COVID-19 to its knees.”
On Monday, the Illinois State Board of Education updated its mask guidance to say that everyone, teachers and students, regardless of vaccination status, should wear a mask inside schools. A week before that, the Illinois Department of Public Health warned schools to check with their insurers if they don’t follow CDC mask guidance.
“We have always followed any of the governor’s mandates or any CDC guidance,” Bugg said. “A mandate from the governor will relieve school boards of that responsibility and I am glad to see a mandate.”
Pritzker announces vaccine mandate for some state employees
The state will require vaccines for state employees who work in congregate facilities, including veterans homes, corrections facilities and Department of Human Services’ developmental centers and psychiatric centers. This directive takes effect Oct. 4.
“The most effective infection control measure is vaccination,” Pritzker said.
All long-term care facilities, including those that are privately operated, are also under a universal masking order, Pritzker said.
The governor also said all high school athletes will have to be masked for indoor practice and competition, while coaches and athletes in outdoor sports will not have to mask because the rate outdoor transmission of COVID-19 is low.
IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said that last month, almost 15% of COVID-19 cases were in young children, up from less than 5% in January. In July, 7.8% of hospitalizations were in people younger than 20 years old, she said.