Masks back on for all schools, most Illinoisans, public health leaders recommend

Illinois Department of Public Health

The Illinois Department of Public Health announced it was adopting new, stricter masking guidelines issued by the federal government, which call for universal masking at schools even for vaccinated students and staff.

IDPH was also asking for indoor masking of the general public in areas of substantial or high COVID-19 transmission. By their definition, that is almost all of Illinois.

As of Aug. 1, vaccinated residents of only seven counties scattered across Illinois would be able to go mask-free indoors because transmission was no more than “moderate,” or fewer than 50 new cases per 100,000 people during the prior week. Residents in the rest of Illinois’ 102 counties should be masked in public indoor settings, they recommended.

The state guidance follows U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updates issued July 27. Illinois’ statewide transmission rate averaged nearly 72 people per 100,000 during the week ending Aug. 1, ranking transmission as “substantial.” There were 65 counties ranked as “high” transmission of over 100 cases per 100,000 people during the prior week and 30 counties as “substantial” for 50 to 100 cases.

These moves by the CDC and the IDPH are only recommendations. Each school district’s leadership makes the final call about mask policies.

Chicago Public Schools already announced a mask mandate for all people this fall. A school district in Oswego elected to go mask optional. The Madison County Board, doubling as the County Public Health Board, urged local school districts to make masks optional.

IDPH originally issued vague guidance on school masks July 9 that Gov. J.B. Pritzker had to clarify July 13. Pritzker’s spokeswoman stated school boards have the final say on mask policies, and the public health recommendations were “not a mask mandate.”

Three of Illinois’ neighboring states are opening schools without statewide mask mandates.

Many parents argue their children’s health is their responsibility, and some educators and experts question the developmental and emotional impacts from masking young students.

“Students with significant behavioral challenges and some of our medically fragile students with physical handicaps often cannot wear a mask or keep them on their faces independently,” said Kim Breust Neilson, a school social worker in Lake in the Hills, Illinois. “COVID-19 restrictions and masking policies completely go against what we have taught kids for decades about cooperation and have disproportionately affected these special needs populations and left them without appropriate services.”\

The CDC advised all teachers, students and staff in every K-12 school to wear masks, regardless of vaccination status. The new guidelines come as various states suffer outbreaks of the new COVID-19 Delta variant.

Public health leaders are also warning of the Delta variant’s higher transmissibility: it spreads twice as easily as previous strains, the CDC and IDPH stated. Scientists also worry about “breakthrough infections,” with vaccinated people falling ill with the new strain. The IDPH reported 169 deaths and 644 hospitalizations from “breakthrough infections.”

“While data continues to show the effectiveness of the three COVID-19 vaccines currently authorized in the U.S., including against the Delta variant, we are still seeing the virus rapidly spread among the unvaccinated,” said IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike, in a press release. “Until more people are vaccinated, we join CDC in recommending everyone, regardless of vaccination status, wear a mask indoors in areas of substantial and high transmissions, and in K-12 schools.”

As of Aug. 2, about 73% of eligible Illinoisans have had one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 57% were fully vaccinated.

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