Pritzker Mandates Masks In Schools Ahead Of New Academic Year, Requires Vaccines For Frontline State Workers
After weeks of contentious debate around masking up for another school year, Gov. JB Pritzker on Wednesday is settling the issue, on Wednesday announcing that all students and staff at K-12 schools and pre-K/childcare facilities in Illinois will be required to wear masks to ward off another potential COVID surge as the virus’ more transmissible Delta variant spikes.
“My goal has always been to safely bring all kids back into the classroom at the start of the school year, and crucially, to keep them there,” Pritzker said at a news conference Wednesday. “Preventing outbreaks from the start also prevents kids from having to stay home because they’re sick or in quarantine.”
In addition to mandating masks, the Illinois Department of Public Health is expanding free access to the University of Illinois’ COVID-19 “SHIELD” saliva testing program, which individual school districts outside of Chicago can choose to opt into.
“I had hoped that a state mask requirement in schools wouldn’t be necessary. But it is,” Pritzker said. “The Delta variant is highly transmissible — more so than any other previous forms of this virus.”
The governor said he was left with little choice “because of the lower rates of vaccination among teens,” and because children under 12 can’t yet get their COVID shots. Additionally, despite leaving mask policy decisions up to individual school districts earlier this summer, Pritzker said too few school boards had made the right choice to mandate masks, given new CDC guidance in the face of the Delta variant.
Many districts that had already made masks optional for the new school year were following prior federal guidance released in early July, which said only the unvaccinated would need masks. That guidance was immediately endorsed by Pritzker’s Department of Public Health. But school districts have also faced loud protests from parents vehemently opposed to their children spending another school year in masks, resulting in school board meetings that have devolved into shouting matches or resulted in police being called.
The governor on Wednesday, however, insisted the state has “broad legal authority” to mandate masks in schools, and said districts face legal exposure if they don’t comply.
“Schools can be held liable if they don’t follow the mandates are put in place,” Pritzker said. “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 mask mandate also applies to indoor sports. The masking policy may be adjusted if the Delta variant subsides and an even more contagious mutation doesn’t replace it, or regionally if vaccination rates improve in some areas of the state.
Pritzker cited other states like Arkansas and Florida, where cases and hospitalizations are up, including for children and young adults. Pediatric ICU beds across the country are seeing more COVID patients than at any other point during the pandemic, though Illinois Department of Public Health data has not yet shown a disproportionate spike in youth COVID cases.
While Illinois’ largest teachers unions immediately issued statements of support for the new policy, Pritzker’s critics were just as quick. The field of three GOP candidates vying to challenge Pritzker in next year’s election all slammed Pritzker’s decision, with former State Sen. Paul Schimpf (R-Waterloo) stressing that individual school districts should make their own decisions. Construction magnate Gary Rabine questioned the efficacy of masks and State Sen. Darren Bailey (R-Xenia) insisted masks are detrimental to students’ mental health.
Elected Republican leaders in the General Assembly also called for local control, denouncing Pritzker’s use of executive authority rather than involving the legislature.
The governor is also mandating masks for long-term care facilities, as well as requiring certain frontline state employees to get the COVID vaccines by Oct. 4. That includes those who work at Illinois prisons, and in other congregate settings like homes for people with disabilities and veterans.
Pritzker cited the high rates of vaccination for residents in Illinois’ four veterans’ homes — one of which was the site of a deadly COVID outbreak in the fall that killed more than a quarter of the facility’s residents — in contrast with low rates of vaccine uptake for staff members.
“They run the risk of carrying the virus into work with them, and then it’s the residents who are ending up seriously sick, hospitalized or worse,” Pritzker said. “It’s a breach of safety, it’s fundamentally wrong and in Illinois, it’s going to stop.”
But Illinois’ largest public employee union balked at the vaccine mandate for frontline state employees. AFSCME Council 31 President Roberta Lynch responded in a lengthy statement encouraging stronger COVID prevention measures rather than “rigid mandates,” but said the union is “fully prepared to engage” in bargaining over the mandate.
“We strongly oppose any effort to define them as part of the problem rather than recognizing their dedication and the vitally important contributions they have made to protecting health and saving lives,” Lynch said.
Universal masking at the state’s approximately 1,2000 long-term care facilities will also be required — which Pritzker justified by pointing to newly published state data showing staff vaccination rates at nursing homes lag behind vaccine uptake by residents in many areas of the state excluding Chicago and many northwest suburbs.