Illinois health officials adopt updated CDC guidance for schools, encourage unvaccinated to wear masks

The Illinois Department of Public Health announced Friday that it will fully adopt the CDC's updated guidance for COVID-19 prevention for schools from Kindergarten to 12th grade.

"Our goal is to protect the health of students, teachers and staff so that in-person learning can resume as safely as possible," said IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike.  "The CDC is right: vaccination is the best preventive strategy. As school board members, parents, teachers and superintendents plan for a return to in-person learning in the fall, we strongly encourage those who are not vaccinated to continue to mask."

MORE: Fully vaccinated teachers and students don't need masks, CDC says

New elements of the updated guidance include:

  • Masks should be worn indoors by individuals, 2-years-old and older, who are not fully vaccinated;
  • CDC recommends schools maintain at least three feet of physical distance between students in classrooms, combined with mask wearing indoors by people who are not fully vaccinated;
  • Screening, testing, ventilation, handwashing and respiratory etiquette should be followed;
  • Students, faculty and staff should stay home when sick and get tested;
  • Contract tracing in combination with quarantine, isolation, and cleaning and disinfection are also important layers of prevention to keep schools safe

Additionally, the CDC says schools and communities should monitor community transmission of COVID-19, vaccination coverage, screening testing and outbreaks to guide decisions about prevention that is needed.

State Supt. of Education Dr. Carmen I. Ayala released the following declaration, which mandates in-person learning with limited exceptions:

"Beginning with the 2021-22 school year, all schools must resume fully in-person learning for all student attendance days, provided that, pursuant to 105 ILCS 5/10-30 and 105 ILCS 5/34-18.66, remote instruction be made available for students who have not received a COVID-19 vaccine or who are not eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine, only while they are under quarantine consistent with guidance or requirements from a local public health department or the Illinois Department of Public Health."

Because children 11 and under are currently unable to get the vaccine, some superintendents are worried that could create problems in schools that have a wide range of ages.

"I think the two separate sets of rules are the hard part," said Dave Palzet, Pleasantdale District 107 Superintendent. "Having some kids that will be wearing and some kids who wouldn’t be wearing makes it difficult."

Some health officials say the CDC is moving too fast, as large areas of the country still have low vaccine rates where COVID-19 numbers are climbing. 

"We are still seeing that the Delta variant is spreading and it’s much more contagious than the previous variance we were seeing of COVID-19. So that’s another concern," worries Dr. Shikha Jain of UI Health. 

The Chicago Department of Public Health and Chicago Public Schools released the following joint statement in response the new guidance:

"As we turn the corner on this pandemic, the health of Chicago's students and staff remains our highest priority as Chicago's schools prepare to fully open in the fall. While we are still in the process of reviewing the newly-released CDC guidance, we are encouraged by its flexibility in recognition of the absolute necessity of providing in-person learning five days a week in the fall. After we have an opportunity to thoroughly review the guidance, we will inform the public about any potential impact on school opening guidance."

The Chicago Teachers Union also released a statement regarding the new guidance saying, in part:

"While we support the goal of returning every student safely to in-person learning this fall, we are concerned that the vast majority of our students, both under 12 and those 12 and up eligible for shots, remain unvaccinated and vulnerable to catching and transmitting COVID-19, even as the Delta variant continues to spread. Setting benchmarks is critical. Addressing questions about implementation is paramount.

75% of families did not return their students to classrooms this spring, and yet more than 1,000 COVID cases surfaced in our schools last year. Answering the questions that this guidance raises is critical to building confidence among parents and students to return students to schools, and keep them safe once they're there."

Illinois Education Association President Kathi Griffin also released the following statement about the guidance:

"We are very excited that the Illinois Department of Public Health has decided to adopt the Centers for Disease Control’s guidance for schools. Both agencies are correct that vaccines are the best way to keep students and staff safe and for those who can’t get vaccinated, wearing a mask is the next best option. This news has been highly anticipated. Our members are looking forward to the start of this school year and now we have an idea of what the year will look like, and it is based on science, which is a great comfort."

The newly updated school guidance can be found here