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Pritzker to order indoor masking for all 2 and up, plus mandatory vaccine for educators from kindergarten to college

The governor plans to make the announcement Thursday morning, just two days after he sidestepped questions about extending a vaccine mandate to all state workers.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker puts on his mask during a news conference at the James R. Thompson Center in January.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker puts on his mask during a news conference at the James R. Thompson Center in January.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

UPDATE: Pritzker reinstates indoor mask mandate, requires vaccines for educators, college students

Gov J.B. Pritzker on Thursday plans to announce a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for all K-12 and higher education employees as well as a statewide indoor mask mandate for everyone 2 and older, sources with knowledge of the announcement told the Chicago Sun-Times.

That announcement, which is planned for Thursday morning, would come just two days after the Democratic governor sidestepped questions about extending his limited coronavirus vaccine mandate to all state workers.

The Illinois Federation of Teachers and the Illinois Education Association, the two statewide teachers unions, welcomed the vaccine mandate to help “provide the greatest possible level of safety” for in-person school.

“The surge of COVID-19 cases in our state reminds us that this vaccine mandate is a public health imperative,” the unions said in a joint statement. “To implement it properly, widespread education and access to vaccines will be essential. For members who cannot, or will not, get vaccinated, we are glad to see the governor has implemented twice weekly COVID testing.”

The labor organizations said they would work with their locals to negotiate the terms and implementation of the mandate in districts, colleges and universities.

The facial covering requirement would apply across Illinois to everyone aged two and over, regardless of vaccination status. Chicago and suburban Cook County are already under comparable masking mandates. Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle opted to return to them last week.

New vaccine mandates and a return to masking are hot topics as COVID-19 cases rise across Illinois, fueled largely by the more highly contagious Delta variant. All of the state’s 102 counties now fall under the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s high transmission category, painting the state’s public health map a troubling coat of red.

Map of U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s coronavirus transmission rates in Illinois as of Tuesday.
Map of U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s coronavirus transmission rates in Illinois as of Tuesday.
Illinois Department of Public Health

On Tuesday, Pritzker warned of “significantly greater mitigations” and a move back to earlier, precautionary phases if the surge in COVID-19 patients overwhelms hospitals and intensive care units, saying that he and others are “consistently looking at the menu of options that we may need to impose in order to bring down the numbers.”

“I will remind you that if we are not able to bring these numbers down, if hospitals continue to fill, if the hospital beds and ICUs get full like they are in Kentucky — that’s just next door to Illinois — if that happens, we’re going to have to impose significantly greater mitigations,” Pritzker said at an unrelated Tuesday news conference.

Illinois saw 4,451 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday, inching closer to the 4,904 daily caseload reported Friday, which was the state’s highest in seven months.

Chicago Public Schools is already requiring its employees to get a shot unless they have a valid medical or religious reason. Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Wednesday extended that mandate to all city employees.

Gov. J B Pritzker answers questions at a bill-signing ceremony at the Thompson Center on Wednesday.
Gov. J B Pritzker answers questions at a bill-signing ceremony at the Thompson Center on Wednesday.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Vaccine mandates — along with mask requirements — have been a hotly contested issue in school districts statewide.

Even before this announcement, tension has developed between state officials and some suburban and downstate schools where educators and parents have argued for more autonomy in making safety decisions.

The state earlier this week put several districts on probation for initially refusing to follow the governor’s mask mandate for school settings, and they went as far as revoking recognition for a suburban private school.

Marzetta Rush, a special education teacher at Deneen School of Excellence, receives the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at Chicago Vocational Career Academy in the Stony Island Park neighborhood in March.
Marzetta Rush, a special education teacher at Deneen School of Excellence, receives the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at Chicago Vocational Career Academy in the Stony Island Park neighborhood in March.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

Pritzker announced a limited vaccine mandate for some state workers earlier this month. It applies to “all state employees at congregate facilities,” including veterans’ homes and prisons. Those workers have till Oct. 4 to get a shot. A federal mandate requires all staff to be vaccinated at nursing homes that receive Medicaid funding, which is “pretty much” every home in Illinois, a Pritzker spokeswoman has said.