Gov. JB Pritzker on Wednesday announced a mask mandate for all Illinois schools – from preschool through Grade 12 – and daycares, 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 that says teachers and students older than the age of 2 need to 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, adding that “far too few” schools had elected to follow CDC guidance.
IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said that last month, nearly 15% of COVID-19 cases were in young children, up from less than 5% in January, and in July, 7.8% of hospitalizations were in people younger than 20 years old.
Pritzker said the state would look at several things to get a read on when they would adjust the school mask mandate, including the rate of community transmission, vaccination rates, and vaccines becoming eligible for kids younger than 12.
“The most effective infection control measure is vaccination,” Pritzker said.
The governor also stated that 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.
In a news release, 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,” said Kathi Griffin, president of the Illinois Education Association. “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.”
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 on Oct. 4.
“By and large, residents of these state-run facilities have done what they can do to protect themselves by getting vaccinated,” Pritzker said.
All long-term care facilities, including those that are privately operated, are also under a universal masking order, Pritzker said.
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 prior to that, the Illinois Department of Public Health warned schools to check with their insurers if they don’t follow CDC mask guidance.
IDPH also announced on Wednesday that it was expanding free COVID-19 testing to all K-12 public schools in the state, paid for by additional funds from the federal CARES Act and American Rescue Plan.
Schools can choose to use the SHIELD Illinois saliva-based test developed by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, which is able to detect SARS-CoV-2 and its variants in symptomatic, pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals.
“In-person learning is a priority and we want to make sure students, teachers, and staff are able to return to the classroom as safely as possible,” Ezike said in a news release. “With the surge in COVID-19 cases and delta variant, the sooner we know if someone has been infected, the quicker we can take action to prevent the spread of the virus to others. Not only is testing the best way to identify these cases, it can also help keep kids in school with a new Test-to-Stay protocol. We encourage all school districts to take advantage of this free resource.”
Pritzker also had a message for those who already have been vaccinated.
“I know this is hard. You did the right thing for yourself, for your family, your community – and now, because of the new delta variant and the high number of unvaccinated people in the United States, it feels like we’re going backwards in this journey,” Pritzker said. “The vast majority of vaccinated folks are safe.”
New quarantine protocol
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.
Schools looking for more information on testing or to sign up for SHIELD Illinois testing can contact Beth Heller at email@example.com.