Illinois teacher vaccine mandate back in spotlight after SCOTUS decision

A doctor administers a vaccine to a patient. Both are wearing blue face masks.
Some Illinois teachers testified against the vaccine mandate at a public hearing held during the Illinois state board of education’s monthly meeting. (Bogdankosanovic / Getty Images)

The debate over COVID vaccine mandates took center stage at the Illinois state board of education’s monthly meeting, where about two dozen school leaders, teachers union representatives, and educators voiced both support and opposition to a proposed rule that would require school employees to be inoculated.

The testimony, which took place during a public hearing portion of Wednesday’s meeting, came in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling last week that blocked the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate for large employers, including school districts in about half the states.

The Supreme Court ruling has revived the debate over COVID vaccine mandates. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker last August previously issued a vaccine mandate for public sector employees, including teachers, under an emergency order.

At the state board meeting, some teachers pushed back against the proposed rule that would solidify Pritzker’s mandate. It’s not clear how widespread teacher opposition is. The state’s two largest teachers unions have supported the mandate and several school leaders and union representatives voiced support for the mandate at Wednesday’s hearing, calling it one of the tools they are using to prevent the spread of COVID. 

“This has been very effective in keeping our staff safe during the global pandemic,” said Superintendent Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat of Peoria Public Schools. “And it has also kept our students safe so that they can attend school and go back to classrooms.” 

During the meeting, some teachers raised concerns with the state board’s ability to enact the rule, saying that a vaccine mandate requires a bill passed by the state’s legislature. Other teachers said they want to be able to make a personal choice on whether they should take the vaccine or not. 

Megan Cunningham, a kindergarten teacher who is fully vaccinated, is afraid to get the booster because she said she had a reaction to the vaccine. She feels the proposed rule will take away her ability to make a personal decision. 

“I love my job, but unfortunately if I am mandated to get a vaccine I can’t do that anymore,” said Cunningham. “I worked during the pandemic and I love going to my babies every single day. I don’t want to choose between something that I love and getting a vaccine.”

Lynn Johnson, a kindergarten bilingual teacher in the Joliet school district, feels that the mandate would not help her school district, which she said has already taken steps to keep students safe and continue classes, including requiring teachers to be tested for COVID every week.

“Because of those things that we have done all throughout the school year so far, we feel like we’re just ready to get back to normal,” said Johnson. “We just want to go back to just teaching our kids and not worrying about other things.”

The state’s largest teachers unions — the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the Illinois Educators Association — continue to support the vaccine mandate, seeing it as one of the ways to keep teachers and students safe in the classroom. The Chicago Teachers Union has also supported the mandate; 92% of teachers in the state’s largest school district are vaccinated.

“The vaccine has proven to be the best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” said Daryl Morrison of the Illinois Educators Association. “Weekly testing provides the best alternative to vaccination and helps ensure that no one who is contagious is able to spread the disease to Illinois students or schools.” 

Jackie Matthews, a spokeswoman for the Illinois state board of education, said the Supreme Court’s decision “does not impact the requirements in place for schools in Illinois.”

Across the nation, there has been debate on whether masks or vaccines should be mandatory. Tennessee state legislators are proposing to expand a voucher program that will allow parents to send their students to private schools if they are upset with local public schools over mask requirements and virtual learning.

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