State cuts social distancing guidance for schools from 6 to 3 feet
State officials eased guidance for social distancing in schools Wednesday with the intent of encouraging a return to classrooms as soon as it's practical in each community.
A strict face-covering mandate remains, but social distancing policies are now 3 feet instead of 6 feet under certain conditions, the Illinois State Board of Education and Illinois Department of Public Health noted. That allows for more students to be in a classroom and school at one time.
"Social distance for in-person learning is now defined as 3 to 6 feet for students and fully vaccinated staff," State Superintendent of Schools Carmen I. Ayala said in a statement on the ISBE website. "Maintaining 6 feet remains the safest distance, but schools can operate at no less than 3 feet in order to provide in-person learning.
Also Wednesday, the state's seven-day COVID-19 vaccination average reached its highest level at 95,369. On Tuesday, 104,777 more people received shots, the Illinois Department of Public Health reported.
The federal government has delivered 470,570 doses of vaccine to Illinois since Sunday and shipped a total of 4,738,045 doses since distribution began in mid-December. The IDPH reported 3,567,927 shots have been administered.
The ISBE also recommended that "unvaccinated staff should maintain 6 feet social distance as much as possible because adults remain more susceptible to infection than children." Strict adherence to social distancing must be maintained and monitored if face masks are removed in limited situations, she said.
Some school officials said they are still reviewing what the revisions might mean for their districts.
"We're working through all the logistics with the new guidelines and working to gather parents' feedback," said Palatine Township Elementary District 15 spokeswoman Becca Latham, "to ensure that we are doing everything we can to follow the guidelines and bring students back as we are able."
At Downers Grove District 58, "these guidelines loosen many of the previous restrictions public schools had to follow and may result in additional changes to our plans," Superintendent Kevin Russell said in a letter to parents.
Elmhurst Community Unit District 205 has allowed 3 feet instead of 6 feet of social distancing in classrooms for elementary students through grade 5 since March 1, and intended to make the same shift for grades 6 through 12 next week, Superintendent Dave Moyer said.
"We just had no choice. We had to move in that direction if we were to get our kids back in school more," Moyer said, noting the ISBE guidance is not a mandate. "We were more conservative with the upper grade levels until we were further on getting teachers vaccinated."
So far, 1,247,781 people -- 9.79% of the state's population -- have been fully vaccinated. Vaccines manufactured by Pfizer Inc. and Moderna Inc. require two doses several weeks apart.
The first two waves of vaccinations in Illinois started with medical workers and people in assisted living facilities (Phase 1A) followed by essential workers like teachers and people age 65 and older on Jan. 26 (Phase 1B). On Feb. 25, the state expanded that to people with serious medical issues such as cancer (Phase 1B-plus), but suburban Cook County and the collar counties have held back because of insufficient vaccine doses.
"We continue to make progress in Phase 1B of the vaccination plan in suburban Cook County, and we are reviewing the data daily," Cook County Department of Public Health Senior Medical Officer Kiran Joshi said. "The decision to move to Phase 1B-Plus, and eventually 1C, will be determined by the amount of vaccine we receive in coming days and weeks."
New cases of COVID-19 reached 1,682 Wednesday with 30 more deaths from the respiratory disease.
Illinois hospitals were treating 1,157 COVID-19 patients Tuesday night.
The state's positivity rate for COVID-19 cases is 2.3% based on a seven-day average.
Total cases statewide stand at 1,202,709, and 20,810 Illinoisans have died since the pandemic began.
Labs processed 71,488 virus tests in the last 24 hours.
The ISBE's updated guidance reflects new findings from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and "what we have learned about the transmission of COVID-19 in school settings, as more students in Illinois and across the country have returned safely to in-person learning," Ayala said.
As virus caseloads decline, adjustments in COVID-19 prevention policies are ongoing, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said at an event Wednesday. The changes would "allow more kids to be back in the classroom, and as you know, we're trying to get teachers vaccinated."