CHICAGO - Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker announced on Wednesday that students returning to schools this fall will have to wear masks, regardless of vaccination status.
The mandate applies to students, teachers and staff pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, as well as day cares across the state.
The change comes as COVID cases rise again in Illinois, with the Delta variant hitting unvaccinated people hard. Children under 12 are not yet permitted to get vaccinated.
"Every time we think we know where this virus is headed, it changes, and it shifts...," Pritzker said in Chicago. "I want to say this, specifically to young adults: Please do not think that the worst-case scenario can’t happen to you. It can happen. It is happening. Get vaccinated."
The new school mask requirement is in line with CDC recommendations that students inside school buildings, regardless of vaccination status, should wear a mask. Those recommendations are supported by the Illinois Federation of Teachers.
"Given our current trajectory in hospitalizations and ICU usage, we have a limited amount of time right now to stave off the highest peaks of this surge going into the fall," Governor Pritzker said. "To combat the Delta variant, Illinois is taking three key steps to protect our state’s 1.8 million unvaccinated children under 12 and their families, residents and staff of long-term care facilities, and those highly vulnerable people who rely upon state employees for their daily care."
Some suburban Chicago school districts had already announced that masks would be required this fall.
On Monday night, the Naperville District 203 School Board voted to mandate masks for all students this fall whether or not they’ve been vaccinated. The new rule also applies to teachers, staff and visitors to the schools.
"The DuPage County Health Department indicated that at this time universal mask wearing should continue in schools until all school-age children are eligible for the vaccine, and the majority are vaccinated against COVID-19," said Naperville District 203 Superintendent Dan Bridges.
In addition, Gov. Pritzker is requiring all state employees to be vaccinated by Oct. 4; that includes employees who work in prisons and juvenile detention facilities, veterans’ homes and state facilities for the mentally and developmentally disabled.
"Vaccination is the best way we can prevent further spread, hospitalizations, and deaths due to COVID-19 and the Delta variant," Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said. "Data show that the vaccines are preventing severe illness, hospitalization, and death, and are effective against the Delta variant. We have the tools to turn the tide of another wave, but we need people to use them."
Employers both private and public have begun requiring shots against the deadly virus — President Joe Biden is considering such a requirement for all federal employees — and the law appears to be on the side of the boss. Employers can make vaccination a condition of employment, experts say.
Roberta Lynch, executive director of Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents most of those affected by the vaccination order, said those workers have been reporting to work since the beginning of the pandemic "putting their own health and safety at risk to assure public safety and provide essential care."
Lynch said the union is prepared to discuss parameters with the Pritzker administration "to ensure fairness for employees while safeguarding the health of staff and all those who reside in these facilities."
While the debate over vaccines has caused deep divisions nationally, face coverings have lit an even shorter fuse. They are an aegis against transmission for some, an unwelcome and unjust intrusion for others, with local school boards the latest battleground. The state’s largest teachers’ union, the Illinois Education Association, issued a statement indicating its agreement with the governor’s action.
"Let’s pull together and take care of one another. Vax up and mask up. We owe it to our students and we owe it to each other," said Kathi Griffin, president of the Illinois Education Association. "We’re so thankful to have leadership in this state that won’t let the virus fester and grow. But, it us up to all of us to bring COVID-19 to its knees."
Also, all indoor sport athletes across Illinois will be required to wear masks. It is not required for outdoor sports.
Illinois House Republican leader Jim Durkin responded to Pritzker's mask mandate.
"For over a year, the Governor cut out a co-equal branch of government and ruled the state with unilateral authority instead of working collaboratively to handle the Covid-19 pandemic in Illinois. Governor Pritzker must put this continuing power trip aside and allow local health departments, elected officials, schools and most importantly, parents, to make decisions on these serious issues to help stop the spread of Covid-19."
Republicans, as they have since the early day of Pritzker’s involvement in stemming the pandemic, continued to criticize the governor’s unilateral approach to mitigation of the virus’ impact. Senate GOP Leader Dan McConchie of the Chicago suburb of Hawthorn Woods used Pritzker’s "All In Illinois" COVID-19 mantra in his critique.
"He himself refuses to be ‘all in’ with state and local elected officials who better understand their geographic areas and their communities’ needs," McConchie said in a statement. "If he really wants to achieve the best possible mitigation results, he would abandon this singular approach and instead bring others to the governing table to ensure that mitigation efforts will be broadly accepted by the populace and effectively implemented."
Pritzker, who last week ordered that face coverings be worn by anyone entering a state building, also said Wednesday masks would be required in all long-term care facilities, including those privately owned. That jibes with the industry’s response, as the nation’s largest nursing-home owner, Genesis Heathcare, announced it would require 70,000 employees at 400 facilities nationwide to get the shot.
Advocate Aurora Health announced Wednesday it would require vaccinations for 75,000 hospital workers in Illinois and Wisconsin as well.
"I know this is hard," Pritzker said, addressing people who have gotten the shot. "You did the right thing ... and now, because of the new delta variant and the high number of unvaccinated people in the United States feels like we’re going backwards.... I want to ask you one more thing. Talk to someone in your life who could get the vaccine, but hasn’t. Share your story, share why you did it."
Associated Press contributed to this report.