Illinois quickly adopts CDC guidance dropping mask mandates for vaccinated students and teachers

Teacher Sarah Schielke attends to a question from Nathan V. at CICS West Belden. The Chicago charter school employs the personalized learning method for its K-8 students. The school is part of the Chicago International Charter School network, and is managed by Distinctive Schools,. Photo by Stacey Rupolo/Chalkbeat NOTE: Last names not given by school

Illinois students and teachers who are vaccinated will not be required to wear masks in school buildings this fall after the state quickly adopted new health guidelines issued Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

This comes on the heels of the state board of education passing a resolution in May to reopen schools across the state full-time in the fall with few exceptions. 

“With vaccination rates continually rising and unprecedented federal funding to support safe in-person learning, and mitigations such as contact tracing and increased ventilation in place in schools, we are fully confident in the safety of in-person learning this fall,” said Carmen Ayala, state superintendent of education, in a press release Friday.

The new federal guidance allows fully vaccinated adults and students to stop wearing masks in classrooms and reduces social distancing requirements. Students from the ages of 2 and older should continue to wear masks indoors if they are not fully vaccinated. Social distancing rules have been reduced from six feet apart to three feet apart. If three feet is not possible, schools will need to apply more preventive measures such as social distancing and indoor masking.The guidance asks schools to continue to track community transmission of COVID-19 and vaccinations. 

The new guidance helps boost Chicago Public Schools’ argument for directing most students toward in-person learning. The district will debut a “virtual academy” for students with medical conditions but has strict guidelines on who qualifies. 

“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,” said a joint statement from the school district and the city’s public health department.

Chicago has reopened negotiations with its teachers union around fall reopening. The union wants student vaccination goals, teleworking accommodations for teachers with health conditions, and housing help for families, among other demands.

Dan Montgomery, President of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, said the federal guidance could help in negotiation talks between unions and district officials statewide. However, one of his main concerns still remains ventilation in schools. 

“There’s good science that shows that ventilation can be more important than social distancing,” said Montgomery. “Social distancing is a challenge in a lot of places because of classroom sizes, so ventilation is key.” 

In June, superintendents urged the state board of education to update guidance so schools can plan for bringing students back into classrooms in the fall. While the new guidelines have answered some questions, they have sparked a new set of questions. 

The Chicago Teachers Union statement raised concerns about the vaccination rate of students, especially as Black and Latino communities throughout the city were hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic and have limited access to vaccinations. They propose a 80% vaccination target rate as a benchmark for a vaccination program at schools to keep students and staff safe.

“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,” said a statement from the union.

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