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Class cloud? Pritzker orders up school mask mandate: ‘We all must take immediate and urgent action’

The move will bring Illinois in line with U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations that teachers, students and staff wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination status. But the GOP called the decision proof of the Democrat’s “failure” battling the pandemic.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker adjusts his face mask after a news conference last year.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker adjusts his face mask after a news conference last year.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

Students from preschool through 12th grade will have to wear masks to start the school year and some state workers will be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19, as the Delta variant drives Illinois’ latest case surge, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced Wednesday.

The governor’s order brings Illinois in line with guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which last week recommended that all teachers, students and staff in schools wear masks indoors regardless of their vaccination status.

“Given the CDC’s strong recommendation, I had hoped that a state mask requirement in schools wouldn’t be necessary, but it is,” Pritzker said at a Loop news conference.

Pritzker said that’s because kids younger than 12 still can’t get vaccinated, and “because there are many people who are reluctant across some of the districts to adopt the CDC guidance.”

“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,” he said.

The mandate will apply to both public and private school students. Chicago Public Schools previously announced a mask requirement.

“We have the legal authority to enforce this, and we will if necessary,” Pritzker said, arguing that rogue school districts put themselves at risk of costly lawsuits. The Illinois State Board of Education could also remove their “recognition status,” effectively cutting off funding, the governor said.

In a statement, the Chicago Teachers Union applauded Pritzker but said “schools in Chicago will need more than masking as we continue to struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic and its variants.” That list includes ventilation upgrades, testing plans for all members of school communities and more.

Dan Montgomery, the president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, welcomed the masking requirement, calling it a “prudent course of action.”

“The sharp increase of COVID-19 cases in our state is a stark reminder that this pandemic is far from over,” Montgomery said in a statement. “It is the responsibility of every one of us to do whatever is necessary to keep one another safe and bring this pandemic to an end. Our union takes that responsibility seriously and will continue to fight to help make that happen.”

Pritzker’s vaccine mandate will apply to “all state employees at congregate facilities,” including veterans’ homes and prisons. Workers have till Oct. 4 to get a shot.

Those unvaccinated workers “run the risk of carrying the virus into work with them, and then it’s the residents who are ending up seriously sick hospitalized or worse. It’s a breach of safety, it’s fundamentally wrong,” Pritzker said. “And in Illinois, it’s going to stop.”

Pritzker also issued a mask mandate for nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, as part of his “initial actions” to slow Illinois’ rise in cases. The state has averaged nearly 2,100 new cases per day over the last week, a rate that has multiplied by a factor of seven over the past month.

Roberta Lynch, the executive director of AFSCME Council 31, took issue with Pritzker painting employees at those facilities as “part of the problem rather than recognizing their dedication and the vitally important contributions they have made to protecting health and saving lives.

“The Pritzker Administration has already notified AFSCME that they stand ready to bargain over the implementation of the Governor’s plan for a vaccination mandate in these congregate facilities,” Lynch’s statement continued. “Our union is fully prepared to engage in those discussions in order to ensure fairness for employees, while safeguarding the health of staff and all those who reside in these facilities.”

After most key metrics sank to pandemic lows in June, nightly coronavirus hospitalizations have tripled since early July — and Wednesday’s tally of 18 COVID-19 deaths marked the state’s highest in six weeks.

Under the new CDC guidelines, masks are advised for all public indoor settings in all but five of Illinois’ 102 counties. Another statewide mask mandate is “not on the table” for now, Pritzker said, but he didn’t rule it out in the future.

“Every time we think we know where this virus is headed, it changes, and it shifts,” Pritzker said. “As your governor, it’s my duty to say that we all must take immediate and urgent action to slow the spread of the Delta variant. People are dying who don’t have to die. It’s heartbreaking and it impacts us all.”

Pritzker’s announcement began stirring up his rivals even before he made it official.

Southern Illinois Republican Darren Bailey, who is running for governor, dubbed Pritzker “a tyrant” for the move.

“It’s time to stop this nonsense and I will fight to my last breath for freedom and common-sense policies,” the state senator from Xenia tweeted. “Call your school board members and tell them to stand up. Local control matters. Your voice matters; mental health matters.

State Sen. Darren Bailey, left; Gov. J.B. Pritzker, right.
State Sen. Darren Bailey, left; Gov. J.B. Pritzker, right.
Facebook; Tyler LaRiviere/Chicago Sun-Times file

“Let me be clear, if you want a vaccine or want to wear a mask, I hope you get one. I will help you get one if you need help. But anyone who wants to force masks on children or force a vaccine is a tyrant.”

And the state GOP called on Pritzker to stop running his campaign commercials, dubbing them “an obviously premature victory lap” in light of the new mitigations.

“Governor Pritzker cannot have it both ways,” Illinois Republican Party Chairman Don Tracy said in a statement. “He cannot run political TV ads that take a victory lap over his pandemic response while at the same time reinstituting COVID mandates and mitigations. The return of these mandates is a clear admission of his own failure.”

House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, and Senate Republican Leader Dan McConchie, R-Hawthorn Woods, both took aim at Pritzker’s “unilateral” approach during the pandemic.

“The Governor encourages the public to be ‘all in Illinois,’ but he himself refuses to be ‘all in’ with state and local elected officials who better understand their geographic areas and their communities’ needs,” McConchie said. “If he really wants to achieve the best possible mitigation results, he would abandon this singular approach and instead bring others to the governing table to ensure that mitigation efforts will be broadly accepted by the populace and effectively implemented. By continuing to exclude other state and local leaders, he is failing the people of Illinois who need statewide coordination, input and buy in from the public.”