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Masks no longer required for Illinois’ vaccinated students, teachers as state adopts new CDC guidance

Chicago officials said they’d continue reviewing their plans for the fall but were “encouraged by [the] flexibility” of the new recommendations, leaving the door open to a lax masking policy when Chicago Public Schools buildings reopen in late August.

Preschool students listen as their teacher reads a story at Dawes Elementary School at 3810 W. 81st Pl. on the Southwest Side, Monday morning, Jan. 11, 2021.
Preschool students listen as their teacher reads a story at Dawes Elementary School at 3810 W. 81st Pl. on the Southwest Side, Monday morning, Jan. 11, 2021.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Vaccinated teachers and students don’t need to wear masks inside Illinois school buildings this fall, state officials announced Friday soon after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxed its COVID-19 guidelines for schools, while Chicago leaders are still deciding whether they’ll follow suit.

The changes come amid a national vaccination campaign in which children as young as 12 are eligible to get shots, but also as parents worry with uncertainty about their younger kids who haven’t yet been approved for vaccines.

Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, said the updated federal guidelines represent the latest available scientific information for keeping students and staff safe.

“The CDC is right: vaccination is the best preventive strategy. As school board members, parents, teachers and superintendents plan for a return to in-person learning in the fall, we strongly encourage those who are not vaccinated to continue to mask,” Ezike said in a statement.

State Supt. of Education Carmen Ayala, who has mandated a return to classrooms next school year, said she is “fully confident in the safety of in-person learning this fall.”

CPS leaves door open

Federal and state officials left room for school districts to set their own standards. Chicago schools and health officials said they’d continue reviewing their plans for the fall but were “encouraged by [the] flexibility” of the new recommendations, leaving the door open to a lax masking policy when Chicago Public Schools buildings reopen for full-time in-person learning in late August.

The Chicago Teachers Union, which this week laid out its proposal for the fall return that included an 80% student vaccination goal, said the updated guidance “triggers more questions than answers.”

“Our Black and Brown school communities lie in neighborhoods that have struggled to access vaccinations, at the same time that those neighborhoods have been disproportionately hammered by COVID,” union leadership wrote in a statement.

“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.”

Meanwhile, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the CTU’s parent union, said “today’s guidance is grounded in both science and common sense” and encouraged widespread vaccinations.

CPS does not have data on how many of its students are vaccinated, but officials plan to ask students’ statuses when they return to schools late next month.

While there has been a significant nationwide decline in COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths in recent months, youth inoculations have lagged and it isn’t clear when vaccines will be available for younger children. Families with siblings of different ages have particularly struggled to plan, and the nation’s top public health agency is not advising schools to require shots for teachers and vaccine-eligible kids.

Most youth in Chicago not vaccinated

About 43% of 12- to 17-year-olds in the city — including private school students — have received at least one dose of the vaccine, officials said, meaning the vast majority of all school-aged kids have not gotten a shot. At just public schools, more than two-thirds of CPS’ 340,000 students attend preschool through 8th grade, with the majority of those children under 12 and not eligible for the vaccine.

That’s probably going to make for some challenging school environments, said Elizabeth Stuart, a John Hopkins University public health professor who has children in elementary and middle schools.

“It would be a very weird dynamic, socially, to have some kids wearing masks and some not. And tracking that? Teachers shouldn’t need to be keeping track of which kids should have masks on,” she said.

In Chicago, the district plans to launch running vaccination sites for students and their families next week. Though the city still has its lowest COVID-19 rates and casualties since widespread testing became available last year, infections have been rising the past couple weeks as new vaccinations wane. And the district has a tough task this summer reconnecting with the 75% of CPS students who didn’t return to in-person learning in the spring.

The CDC also said schools should continue to space kids — and their desks — 3 feet apart in classrooms. But the agency emphasized that spacing should not be an obstacle to getting kids back in schools and would not required among fully vaccinated students or staff.

CPS kept its 6-foot spacing requirement when federal and state officials lowered their guidance to 3 feet last school year, but in an email to parents this week the district appeared open to a change. At many cramped CPS schools it might be impossible to fully reopen with farther social distancing requirements.

The biggest questions will be at middle schools where some students are eligible for shots and others aren’t.

In Detroit’s public schools, everyone will be required to wear a mask unless everyone in the classroom has been vaccinated. Philadelphia will require all public school students and staff to wear masks inside buildings, even if they have been vaccinated. But masks won’t be mandated in Houston schools.

As for vaccine mandates, the CDC has repeatedly praised such requirements, but the agency on Friday didn’t recommend that measure because it is considered a state and local policy decision, officials said.

Chicago’s Board of Education recently approved a measure that would allow CPS officials to require eligible students get a COVID-19 shot like other mandatory vaccinations, but the district has not yet implemented that mandate.

The new schools guidance says:

• No one at schools needs to wear masks at recess or in most other outdoor situations. However, unvaccinated people are advised to wear masks if they are in a crowd for an extended period of time, like in the stands at a football game.

• Ventilation and handwashing continue to be important. Students and staff also should stay home when they are sick.

• Testing remains an important way to prevent outbreaks. But the CDC also says people who are fully vaccinated do not need to participate in such screening.

• Separating students into smaller groups, or cohorts, continues to be a good way to help reduce spread of the virus. But the CDC discouraged putting vaccinated and unvaccinated kids in separate groups, saying schools shouldn’t stigmatize any group or perpetuate academic, racial or other tracking.

Contributing: Associated Press