Pritzker issues universal mask mandate for Illinois schools

Governor J.B. Pritzker holds papers and stands on a stage in front of the United States flag, wearing a blue mask.

Illinois students and school staff in K-12 and early childhood care centers will be required to  wear masks indoors, under a new mandate from Gov. J.B Pritzker.

The mask mandate, announced at a press conference Wednesday afternoon, extends to extracurricular activities such as sports. Student athletes and coaches will be required to wear masks for indoor sports. Masks will not be required for outdoor activities.

“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,” said Pritzker. “Without these measures, we would likely see more outbreaks than in the latter half of the last school year.”

Pritzker’s order comes as schools in Illinois prepare for full-time, in-person learning and grapple with the emergence of the highly contagious delta variant. His decision follows the Illinois Department of Public Health recommendation to adopt new guidelines issued last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which urged universal masking in schools, regardless of vaccination status.

Chicago Public Schools, the state’s largest school district, announced in late July that it would require all staff and students to wear masks inside schools regardless of vaccination status. Illinois school districts that had relaxed mask mandates will have to align to the governor’s guidelines.

Around the country, rising COVID cases, low vaccination rates, and reports of breakthrough cases in people who are vaccinated have sharpened the debate around mask mandates. In Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he regretted signing a ban on mask mandates and is asking state lawmakers to reverse the law amid a spike in coronavirus cases in that state. Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, in contrast, issued an executive order banning mask mandates, but some Florida schools have decided to move ahead with mandating masks in schools

Earlier in the summer, Illinois public health officials and the state board of education, citing CDC guidance at the time, did not require vaccinated students and teachers to wear masks in classrooms due to the rise in vaccination rates. A few weeks later, state public health officials reversed their recommendations after new federal guidance.

Pritzker announced that his administration will supply masks to school districts that need them and that the state will provide free COVID-19 testing supplies to all public schools statewide.

COVID cases and hospitalizations in Illinois have increased significantly for younger people, Ngozi Ezike, director of the state health department, said at the press conference. In July, 15% of children younger than 10 made up COVID-19 cases, an increase from a little over 5% in January. Those between 10 and 19 made up 23% of cases last month. Hospitalizations tripled for those who are younger than 20, jumping from about 2% to 7.8%. Many of the cases were linked to youth camps, Ezike said. 

According to the state health department, 51.2% of Illinois residents have been fully vaccinated and about 58% of 12- to 17-year-olds in the state have been fully vaccinated. Children under 12 are not yet eligible for the vaccine.

The Illinois Federation of Teachers, one of the largest teachers unions in the state, applauded the mask mandate. Union president Dan Montgomery said he hopes that schools will also continue to use other protective measures against COVID-19 such as social distancing so the school year can proceed without interruptions. 

That would allow students to not only have in-person learning, but also “Friday night football games, school plays and the jazz band, clubs, and all the other things that happen at school that make kids want to come to school and help grow healthy human beings,” said Montgomery.

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