Pritzker announces mask mandate for schools, vaccine rules for state workers

  • Gov. J.B. Pritzker is mandating mask-wearing inside public and private schools and day cares.

    Gov. J.B. Pritzker is mandating mask-wearing inside public and private schools and day cares. Matthew Apgar/Shaw Media

Updated 8/4/2021 7:43 PM

Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Wednesday announced a universal face mask mandate inside public and private schools and day cares to combat the highly infectious COVID-19 delta variant.

"My goal has always been to safely bring all kids back into the classroom and, crucially, keep them there," Pritzker said. "Without these measures, we will likely see many more outbreaks."

"As governor, it's my duty to take immediate and urgent action to slow the spread of the delta variant" of COVID-19. "People are dying that don't have to die," he said.

School districts in the suburbs had diverged on the issue, with some making masks voluntary and others opting for universal face coverings. Emotions have run high among parents.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends universal masking in schools, as does the American Academy of Pediatrics, but "far too few school districts" were following federal guidelines, Pritkzer said. He commended districts including Elgin Area School District U-46 and Chicago Public Schools, which have mandated masking, "for already doing the right thing."

"It's reaffirming that the governor has taken this position and is compelling us to wear masks universally in school," U-46 Superintendent Tony Sanders said. "If we care enough about one another, it's the right thing to do."

The new state mandate applies to students in preschool through the 12th grade, teachers and staff members regardless of vaccination status. It includes indoor sports and extracurricular events but does not involve outside activities.

Five districts that had said they would not make students wear masks, including Wheaton Community Unit District 200, on Wednesday told the Daily Herald they will comply with the state policy.

"Keeping students at school for in-person learning remains our top priority as we transition into the 2021-22 school year," District 200 officials said in a statement.

The delta variant has become the predominant strain in the U.S. and "we've seen COVID-19 cases soar by a factor of nearly 10 since early summer, and hospitalizations have doubled," Pritzker said.

"This upward movement has occurred almost entirely among those who are unvaccinated," he said. In June, 96% of people who were hospitalized were either not vaccinated or partially vaccinated, he said.

Illinois Department of Public Health Director Ngozi Ezike said that "data show that the vaccines are preventing severe illness, hospitalization and death, and are effective against the delta variant."

The governor also is requiring vaccinations for state employees who work at congregate settings, such as veterans' homes or long-term care facilities, effective Oct. 4. This would include some workers at agencies like the Illinois departments of human services, veterans' affairs, corrections and juvenile justice.

In addition, Pritzker ordered universal masking in long-term care centers and urged private operators to follow state vaccination requirements.

Children 11 and younger are not eligible yet for COVID-19 shots, and that, combined with low rates of vaccinations in teenagers plus school districts flouting the CDC, forced his hand, Pritzker said.

Pushback was quick to come from Republicans who said Pritzker should leave such decisions up to local authorities.

"The governor's continued unilateral, go-it-alone approach on pandemic decision-making actively undermines the state's ability to have broadly accepted mitigation strategies," Senate Republican Leader Dan McConchie of Hawthorn Woods said.

State Rep. Tom Morrison of Palatine echoed McConchie on the "go-it-alone approach," saying it "violates constitutional checks and balances, public input, and local control."

"Our local school districts are closest to parents, students, and educators and are capable of deciding what is best for their respective communities," he said in a statement.

And Republican state Rep. Dan Ugaste of Geneva said: "It should be up to the local school districts to decide what is best for each community. I have heard from countless parents on this issue, parents who have talked to and worked with local school boards on masking their children this school year, and most all of which I am aware already resolved the issue or are in the process of doing so."

Two weeks ago there were 39,000 pediatric COVID-19 cases in the U.S., and last week there were more than 72,000, said Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital Director Michael Bauer.

"Make no mistake, kids can get really sick with this," said Bauer, a pediatrician. Masks are a simple, safe tool to protect people from COVID-19, he said.

"Someone needed to step up and take the bull by the horns and say, 'We're listening to the experts, not parents' emotions.'"

The Archdiocese of Joliet, which operates 42 Catholic elementary schools and seven high schools in seven counties including DuPage and Will, said it will follow the governor's policy and the "safety of our students remains a top priority."

"We pray for those affected by the coronavirus, and we pray for an end to this pandemic," spokeswoman Mary Massingale said.

Asked about how the state would manage school districts that might not comply, Pritzker said: "This is a mandate. We have legal authority to enforce this. We're trying to get every child into school every day so they can learn properly."

Districts that ignore the rule would be liable for lawsuits if a child contracts COVID-19 in a school setting, he noted.

Asked earlier whether Pritzker should clarify masking requirements for schools, state. Sen. Cristina Castro, an Elgin Democrat, said: "I think it would be very helpful. You have folks doing different things. One uniform standard would be helpful."

Two major teachers unions, the Illinois Education Association and Illinois Federation of Teachers, endorsed the governor's mandate.

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