Illinois guidance changes to allow vaccinated students not to mask in school
Illinois public health officials say they will follow federal guidelines put forth Friday that allow vaccinated students to forego face masks in school this fall, but some suburban schools wonder how they'd apply standards that also call for unvaccinated students to wear masks.
Schools do not have records of which students have had COVID-19 vaccinations, since the vaccine is not required for school attendance, said Erin Holmes, director of communications for Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211. Schools do keep records of student compliance with other, mandated vaccinations, she said.
The new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines ease rules for students who are fully vaccinated. So far, only those 12 and older are eligible for vaccination using the Pfizer/BioNTech two-dose vaccine.
Illinois Department of Public Health Director Ngozi Ezike and Illinois Education Association President Kathi Griffin were enthusiastic about the CDC guidelines released Friday.
"The CDC is right: Vaccination is the best preventive strategy," Ezike said. "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. IDPH is proud to fully adopt school guidance issued by CDC, which is based on the latest scientific information about COVID-19."
IDPH did not provide an answer about how to distinguish between vaccinated and unvaccinated students.
"Schools can choose how they will identify individuals who have been vaccinated and should communicate their strategies and any changes in plans to teachers, staff, and families, and directly to older students," IDPH spokeswoman Melaney Arnold said.
Glenbard High School District 87 released a letter to parents Friday saying it is considering the new guidance.
Spokespersons for Barrington Area Unit District 220 and Dundee Area Unit District 300 said the new guidelines are likely to be discussed at board of education meetings on Tuesday.
Illinois State Board of Education guidance for schools was being updated, the ISBE website said Friday evening.
Erin Sauber-Schatz, a CDC official who oversaw the new guidance, told The Washington Post details will be up to schools.
"The school has to decide if and how they're able to document vaccination status," Sauber-Schatz told Washingon Post reporters. But if that is not possible, she said, "the safest thing to do to protect those people who are not fully vaccinated" is to go with a universal policy requiring masks.
The change in IDPH policy is likely to have a bigger impact on high schools and middle schools than on elementary schools where students are too young to get COVID-19 shots.
For those younger students, the IDPH is emphasizing layered prevention strategies such as masking, distancing and testing to protect those not fully vaccinated.
"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.
"We are very excited that the Illinois Department of Public Health has decided to adopt the Centers for Disease Control's guidance for schools," said the IEA's Griffin, head of the 135,000-member teacher and support staff union. "Both agencies are correct that vaccines are the best way to keep students and staff safe and for those who can't get vaccinated, wearing a mask is the next best option. This news has been highly anticipated. Our members are looking forward to the start of this school year and now we have an idea of what the year will look like, and it is based on science, which is a great comfort."
Pandemic response in schools has been subject to very heated debate across the suburbs, with parent groups packing meetings and holding demonstrations since last summer. It was the dominant issue in school board elections this spring.
Also Friday, State Superintendent of Education Carmen Ayala issued a declaration mandating in-person learning this fall with limited exceptions. The declaration still requires remote learning to be made available for students who haven't received or who aren't eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine while under quarantine consistent with the guidance of IDPH or a local public health department."
"All our students deserve to return safely in-person to schools this fall," Ayala said in a written statement. "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."
The updated school guidance, which is subject to further changes in the future, can be found at dph.illinois.gov/covid19/community-guidance/school-guidance.