Video: Our Spotlight Politics team of Amanda Vinicky and Paris Schutz discusses the new mask mandate and more in this week’s roundtable. (Produced by Alex Silets)
With classes set to resume across Illinois in the coming weeks, Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Wednesday announced a mask mandate for all pre-K through 12th grade students and staff at public and private schools, along with day cares, as the delta variant of COVID-19 continues to surge across the state and the country.
Pritzker said he had hoped a mask mandate “wouldn’t be necessary,” but with increasing case numbers and hospitalizations among young people, he now believes the state must take action to “protect children (and) prevent death.”
“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,” he said during a news conference Wednesday at the James R. Thompson Center. “Without these measures, we would likely see many more outbreaks than in the latter half of the last school year.”
Pritzker said masks must also be worn in long-term care facilities, and all state employees working in congregate settings like nursing homes will be required to get vaccinated.
The governor said his office has the legal authority to enforce a mask mandate, and said schools or districts that refuse to comply could potentially face lawsuits from parents, or the loss of their recognition status from the Illinois State Board of Education.
Pritzker’s announcement comes a week after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its mask guidance, recommending universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to schools, regardless of vaccination status.
That update reversed previous CDC recommendations that vaccinated teachers and students need not wear masks inside schools, and comes as the more transmissible delta variant continues driving a surge in infections.
Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said the state has seen a “concerning” increase in both the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations among youth. In January, about 5.5% of COVID-19 cases in Illinois were among children younger than 10; that number jumped to 15% as of last month.
Kids ages 10-19 made up 13% of cases statewide at the start of the year, but that figure rose to 23% in July. And the number of hospitalizations for those under age 20 has tripled from 2.5% to 7.8%, Ezike said.
“While most children who get COVID have fewer symptoms than adults, they absolutely can still get COVID-19 and they can absolutely spread it to others,” she said. “We have clearly witnessed that spread this summer throughout Illinois.”
Chicago Public Schools had already stated that all students and staff must wear masks or face coverings inside school buildings — unless they’re eating or drinking — when in-person classes resume at the end of August.
The Illinois State Board of Education also updated its guidance Monday in response to the CDC’s changes, saying everyone should wear masks inside schools.
In a statement, the Illinois Education Association — which represents 135,000 teachers and school staff outside of Chicago — said it is “thankful” for Pritzker’s mask mandate.
“The pandemic is not over. The numbers in Illinois are going in the wrong direction,” the union said. “We need to keep our students in the classroom and keep them, and those who teach and work with them in schools, safe. Masks, along with other mitigation, such as ventilation, testing, appropriate cleaning and protective gear, are proven tactics.”