Cook health officials say unvaccinated 'should' mask up in schools

  • The few people that were allowed into Monday's Elgin Area School District U-46 board meeting applaud comments about a proposed mask plan in Elgin.

    The few people that were allowed into Monday's Elgin Area School District U-46 board meeting applaud comments about a proposed mask plan in Elgin. John Starks | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 7/24/2021 9:45 AM

After reports that several suburban school boards have made wearing a mask indoors during the school year optional, Cook County Department of Public Health officials released guidance Friday stating anyone unvaccinated "should" mask up in classrooms.

"We do not support optional mask-wearing and we never have," said Dr. Rachel Rubin, the suburban public health agency's co-lead attending physician. "We're very concerned about various school districts making up rules on their own that is not consistent with good public health practice and existing guidance."

 

Rubin said the county agency is following U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on indoor masking, which state anyone unvaccinated should wear a mask. Since no one 11 or younger is eligible for the vaccine yet, that accounts for most elementary school students.

Rubin said masking will reduce lost in-person instruction time as well.

The agency's report states: "Masks should be worn by all unvaccinated individuals aged 2 years and older while indoors. Students and staff who are masked and within three to six feet of a confirmed case are not considered close contacts in the new (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidance. This means that consistent and correct mask use will decrease the number of students needing to quarantine at home in the case of exposure. With masking, fewer students will miss in-person instruction."

The report goes even further, suggesting districts "take the stricter approach of following the guidelines issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics, requiring all individuals older than age 2 who can medically tolerate face coverings to wear masks, regardless of vaccination status."

Several school districts in suburban Cook County, including Barrington Unit District 220, Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 and Arlington Heights Elementary District 25, have made masks voluntary for many or all students for the upcoming school year.

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It's unknown how the public health department's guidance will affect those decisions.

Rubin acknowledged that school boards have the right to set their own regulations regarding indoor masking, but she said making masks optional indoors runs counter to best practices.

"We want to make it clear to our area what good public health practice is and what we would recommend as the public health authority of the vast majority of suburban Cook County," she said.

The DuPage County Health Department last week issued similar guidance saying they "strongly recommend" school districts require masking of unvaccinated individuals in classrooms.

Health officials in DuPage said the agency is limited in its enforcement ability.

"DuPage County Health Department does not have the authority to require the adherence to prevention strategies in schools, which is different from local public health authority to recommend and enforce containment measures," said Stephanie Calvillo, the health department's spokeswoman. "We encourage families that have safety concerns to contact their school district to advocate for evidence-based public health prevention strategies."

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