Pritzker announces school mask and (some) state employee vax mandates

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CHICAGO — Gov. JB Pritzker announced Tuesday that masks will be required for students, teachers and staff at pre-K through 12th grade schools and day cares across Illinois, regardless of vaccination status.

The new requirement formalizes the CDC guidance released in July on universal masking for both unvaccinated and vaccinated people in schools.

The mask requirement includes youth sports and activities, with masks now required for all indoor extracurriculars and sports. In line with CDC guidance, masks are not required for activities outdoors where transmission risks and rates are lower. 

No decision has been made regarding occupancy limits for high school fall sports.

The Illinois Department of Public Health also provided additional guidance for students and staff who are exposed to someone who tests positive for COVID-19. Close contacts of a positive case can remain in school if they receive testing on days one, three, five, and seven after they are exposed and if they wore masks at the time of exposure. 

Illinois is home to 1.8 million children under the age of 12 who are not yet eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. The Delta variant COVID is infecting the younger population at a greater rate, with people under 29 years old now accounting for 12 percent of COVID hospitalizations in June.

Many local school boards in West-Central Illinois had decided to make masks optional for the school year, which begins this month. Those boards now must decide to continue that practice or follow the governor’s edict.

“We have the legal authority to enforce this, and we will if necessary,” Pritzker said. “So, obviously schools are the ones that are responsible for keeping their school environment safe. This is something that’s in endeavoring to help them. Schools can be held liable if they don’t follow the mandates are put in place, there’s even the ability for the state to revoke recognition status for school, though I think that’s something that would happen long after other mitigation or other efforts are made to get a school to impose mitigations and to maintain the mask mandate.”

The state is notifying the unions representing all employees who work in 24/7 state-operated living facilities of the intent to require that these employees receive the COVID-19 vaccine by Oct. 4. This includes employees who work in state veterans’ homes, developmental centers, correctional facilities, and juvenile justice facilities. State agency leaders will ensure ongoing vaccination opportunities for employees at state-run facilities, as they have since vaccine was first made available to employees. 

The state also is requiring universal masking in long-term care facilities regardless of vaccination status. 

With vaccination rates among residents in state congregate facilities largely being significantly higher than rates among staff, approximately 80 percent of the new COVID-19 cases in state-operated congregate care facilities have been due to infection among employees.

“Given our current trajectory in hospitalizations and ICU usage, we have a limited amount of time right now to stave off the highest peaks of this surge going into the fall,” Pritzker said. “To combat the Delta variant, Illinois is taking three key steps to protect our state’s 1.8 million unvaccinated children under 12 and their families, residents and staff of long-term care facilities, and those highly vulnerable people who rely upon state employees for their daily care. I also encourage every Illinoisan who is eligible to get vaccinated as soon as possible, as millions of their neighbors already have. This vaccine is safe, effective, and essentially eliminates the risk of hospitalization and death even from the Delta variant. In short, it’s the best tool we have.” 

Pritzker also urged privately-owned and operated long-term care facilities to implement a similar vaccination requirement for their employees.

Those who want to replace Pritzker in 2022 are already weighing in.

Republican Gary Rabine said a mask mandate is an unnecessary abuse of power. He is calling on the governor to allow school boards to make these decisions at the local level.

“This is about control – not about science,” Rabine said in a news release. “We know that kids are at a low risk for the virus. Our kids had a rough year last year thanks to Pritzker’s policies. We should allow local school boards to work with parents and students to set mask policies at the local level, instead of Pritzker’s one-size-fits-all solution.”

State Sen. Darren Bailey (R-Xenia) called Pritzker “a tyrant.”

“… Anyone who wants to force masks on children or force a vaccine is a tyrant,” Bailey posted on Facebook. “It’s time to stop this nonsense. … Call your school board members and tell them to stand up. Local control matters.”

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