DeKalb County school officials said they’re planning to meet in the coming days to discuss a plan for complying with Gov. JB Pritzker’s new statewide vaccine mandate for educators, expressing surprise that the mandate came so soon.
Genoa-Kingston Superintendent Brent O’Daniell said that he was not shocked at the governor’s mandate, but “a little surprised.”
“Honestly, I didn’t think it would be mandated at the schools as quickly as it has,” he said. “We will follow the mandate and are working on putting together a plan of action.”
On Thursday, Pritzker announced a statewide indoor mask mandate for everyone 2 and older, effective Monday, as well as a vaccine mandate.
According to the vaccine mandate, Illinois educators and higher education students are required get vaccinated. If those under the mandate are unable or unwilling to receive a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by Sept. 5, they’ll face required weekly testing, Pritzker said. Those impacted by the vaccine mandate include preschool through 12th grade teachers and staff, as well as higher education staff and students, and those working in the healthcare field and long-term care facilities.
DeKalb Superintendent Minerva Garcia-Sanchez said her school district – the largest in DeKalb County and the only one to approve a district-wide mask mandate prior to Pritzker’s July ruling – had been considering vaccination requirements prior to the governor’s mandate announcement.
“A final decision had not been made, but now it has been made for us,” she said.
Sycamore Superintendent Steve Wilder was also surprised when he heard the governor’s mandate, which was issued during the school day while classes were in session.
“I thought it would be coming at some point in time, but not today,” Wilder said. “The vaccine mandate is a little more complicated than a mask mandate. You can tell people to wear a mask, but vaccines take a little more planning and [are] more invasive than masks.”
Wilder expects that the vaccination process will take time, more than the 10-day deadline of Sept. 5 the governor mentioned.
“It’s going to take a while to walk through the process, and we ask for patience as we work with school district leaders and come up with a plan that is fair and effective that meets the deadline,” he said.
Wilder said he believes that the majority of Sycamore staff and faculty are vaccinated, but not all.
“I know some staff members feel strongly against the vaccine, and I do expect some pushback,” he said. “However, to what degree still remains unknown. We have to be respectful of our staff, but also follow the mandate.”
Superintendents for DeKalb, Sycamore and Genoa have all previously said their districts were not asking students or employees to divulge whether they were vaccinated or not, and said they were also not tracking those numbers so they weren’t able to say how many in their schools received the vaccine.
“Although the mandate is for the betterment of the entire state, it’s one more duty and responsibility school districts are expected to add to our plate when nothing is being taken away,” Wilder said. “As a district superintendent, I’ve learned how to take things in short order. We’re not given much time to make changes that are expected of us, yet we always buckle down and get it done.”
The mandate also pertains to higher education, though Northern Illinois University already had implemented a mandatory vaccine policy for students, which will now also include staff, according to the governor’s mandate. Kishwaukee College in Malta had not yet implemented its own vaccine requirement, but masks were required on campus as of Aug. 2, according to communication from the college.
Area superintendents will discuss the mask mandate with the DeKalb County Health Department and the DeKalb County Regional Office of Education. A meeting of local superintendents at the ROE is scheduled for Monday.
Representatives from the NIU faculty and teachers’ unions were not immediately available for comment, nor were representatives from the Sycamore and DeKalb unions.
O’Daniell said that “plans are going to be made, meetings will be held and discussions will occur” before the governor’s Sept. 5 deadline.
“As far as day-to-day operations go, nothing is going to change,” O’Daniell said. “We’re going to continue to educate our students. This mandate is not going to impact the students’ high-quality education or their learning.”