After CDC reversal, Illinois recommends universal mask requirements in schools

Children coloring at a table while wearing protective face masks.
Illinois adopts new masking guidance from the Centers for Disease Control that recommends that teachers, staff and students wear masks in school buildings regardless of vaccinated status. (FatCamera / Getty Images)

After saying earlier in the summer that masks are optional for vaccinated students and staff, Illinois is now recommending that schools set universal masking rules indoors. 

The state quickly adopted new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control on Tuesday as coronavirus cases rise across the country due to the highly contagious Delta variant.

In addition to masking indoors, the state board of education asked that school districts continue to work with local public health officials to determine other necessary prevention strategies by monitoring community spread and the vaccination rate, and screening for cases in K-12 schools. The board of education tweeted in favor of the guidelines this morning, but has not released an official statement.

Both the state health department and board of education warn that if schools do not follow the current guidance that they will be putting those in the school’s community at risk. 

“School boards that choose not to implement public health guidance are putting their students and staff at risk and should consult with their insurers as to potential liability,” said Januari Trader, a state board of education spokesperson. 

One of the state’s largest teachers union, the Illinois Federation of Teachers, released a statement early Wednesday morning in support of the new federal and state mask guidance. 

“CDC’s recommendation reminds us all that this pandemic is not over. Its harsh impact is still being felt by our students and their families— and will be felt for years to come,” IFT president Dan Montgomery said in a statement.

“We need a comprehensive, layered approach that addresses the immediate safety needs of our students and educators and promotes the holistic recovery of our communities in the long term,” Montgomery added.

Although the state public health department and board of education have aligned with the CDC guidance, it is not clear yet if school districts will be required to adopt the guidance. Several school districts have already decided to make masks optional for older children, and heated debates have unfolded across the state on the issue. 

In Troy, Triad Community Unit #2 Schools are currently giving parents the option of requesting a mask-mandatory classroom for their students in kindergarten through sixth grade. The district is aiming to set up one fully masked classroom in every grade at each of its large elementary schools, but says it can’t guarantee parent requests will be met. 

Triad last week announced it wouldn’t put a mask mandate in place. Instead, the district encourages students to bring a mask to school daily to wear on school buses or as directed by adults. The district also warns that temporary mask mandates could take effect throughout the school year if transmission rates are high. 

While stopping short of a mask mandate, the Collinsville District 10 school board Monday recommended unvaccinated students and staff wear masks, and said masks will be required at times when three feet of distancing is not possible. Outside a recent school board meeting, parents from the Collinsville Unmasked District 10 Facebook group pressured the Southwest Illinois district against a mask mandate. 

Mask mandates have become a political flashpoint across the country. Florida’s governor Monday threatened to take legislative action to prevent a mask mandate, and Texas’ teachers union pressed the governor Tuesday to withdraw his prohibition on mask mandates.

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