UPDATE: Illinois health officials adopt updated COVID-19 K-12 in-person learning guidance from CDC

CDC urges local control in updated COVID-19 guidance for K-12 in-person learning

Sycamore Middle School eighth-graders are seated at a safe social distance from each other in January 2021 as they listen to their teacher, Lisa Pawlowski, talk about proper procedures to follow in the classroom to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Sycamore schools resumed some in-person classes today as part of their hybrid learning plan which includes options of in-person and remote learning.

SPRINGFIELD – Illinois Department of Public Health officials announced Friday that they will fully adopt the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s updated guidance to prevent COVID-19 for in-person learning in schools this fall, and Illinois State Board of Education officials announced all schools must resume in-person learning for the upcoming school year, with few exceptions.

According to a news release sent Friday from the state agencies, the major elements of the updated guidance include masks being worn indoors by all individuals ages 2 and older who are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19. State officials also continue to encourage physical distancing of at least 3 feet and students and staff staying home if they are sick to help reduce the risk of transmission.

“Many schools serve children under the age of 12 who are not eligible for vaccination at this time,” state officials wrote in the release. “Therefore, this guidance emphasizes implementing layered prevention strategies – [including] masking, distancing [and] testing – to protect people who are not fully vaccinated.”

The CDC updated its guidance for kindergarten through 12th grade Friday, urging school officials monitoring local case numbers and working with local public health officials to determine the best course of action for their individual public health situations.

According to the CDC’s updated guidance, schools are urged to work with local public health agencies to determine appropriate prevention strategies considering area levels of low, moderate, substantial or high community transmission and local vaccine coverage.

“This CDC guidance is meant to supplement – not replace – any federal, state, local, territorial or tribal health and safety laws, rules and regulations with which schools must comply,” according to the CDC. “The adoption and implementation of this guidance should be done in collaboration with regulatory agencies and state, local, territorial and tribal public health departments, and in compliance with state and local policies and practices.”

The CDC still is recommending face masks and distancing of at least 3 feet between students as “key prevention strategies,” according to the updated guidance.

“However, if school administrators decide to remove any of the prevention strategies for their school based on local conditions, they should remove them one at a time and monitor closely – with adequate testing through the school and/or community – for any increases in COVID-19 cases,” according to the CDC. “Schools should communicate their strategies and any changes in plans to teachers, staff and families, and directly to older students, using accessible materials and communication channels in a language and at a literacy level that teachers, staff, students and families understand.”

IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said in a news release from the state health agency that the updated school guidance now aligns with guidance for fully vaccinated people, which includes that group not being required to wear a mask except where required by federal, state and local rules and regulations.

“Our goal is to protect the health of students, teachers and staff so that in-person learning can resume as safely as possible,” Ezike said in the release. “The CDC is right – vaccination is the best preventive strategy. As school board members, parents, teachers and superintendents plan for a return to in-person learning in the fall, we strongly encourage those who are not vaccinated to continue to mask.”

Illinois State Superintendent of Education Carmen Ayala announced the declaration mandating in-person learning, with limited exceptions, on Friday. According to a news release from the state, all schools must resume fully in-person learning for all student attendance days provided that remote instruction is made available for unvaccinated students who also may not be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine – and only while they are under quarantine.

“All our students deserve to return safely in person to schools this fall,” Ayala said in the release. “With vaccination rates continually rising and unprecedented federal funding to support safe in-person learning, and mitigations such as contact tracing and increased ventilation in place in schools, we are fully confident in the safety of in-person learning this fall. We look forward to a great school year and to the energy of Illinois’ young minds once again filling our school buildings.”

Federal health officials also recommend the continued use of screening testing to detect cases in K-12 schools as necessary.

For example, a school with low vaccination levels among teachers, staff or students in a community with substantial transmission – meaning 50 to 99 new cases per 100,000 people in the last seven days – or high transmission – meaning 100 or more new cases per 100,000 people in the last seven days – and with a screening testing program in place might decide that they no longer will require physical distancing “to ensure all students can access in-person learning,” according to the CDC. However, they might continue masking requirements “until the levels of community transmission are lower or vaccination coverage increases,” the agency said.

“As another example, a school in a community with substantial or high transmission with a low teacher, staff or student vaccination rate and without a screening testing program should continue to require masks for people who are not fully vaccinated and might decide that they need to continue to maximize physical distancing,” according to the CDC.

The CDC cited that many schools serve children younger than 12 who remain ineligible for vaccination.

“Therefore, this guidance emphasizes implementing layered prevention strategies – e.g., using multiple prevention strategies together – to protect people who are not fully vaccinated, including students, teachers, staff and other members of their households,” according to the CDC. “The guidance is intended to help administrators and local health officials select appropriate, layered prevention strategies and understand how to safely transition learning environments out of COVID-19 pandemic precautions as community transmission of COVID-19 reaches low levels or stops.”

For information on the updated state COVID-19 guidance for K-12 schools, visit the IDPH’s website at www.dph.illinois.gov/covid19/community-guidance/school-guidance.

• This story was updated 2:30 p.m. Friday, July 9, 2021 to include additional information from the IDPH and ISBE.

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