Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker announced Wednesday, Aug. 4, that all Illinois students in preschool through 12th grade must wear masks indoors to start this upcoming school year.
The governor’s mandate comes as COVID-19 cases are skyrocketing both locally and nationally, largely due to the swift spread of the Delta variant of the virus.
Pritzker’s announcement now puts Illinois schools in line with recent guidance issued by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. That guidance, issued at the end of June, suggested that all teachers, students and staff in schools wear masks indoors regardless of their vaccination status.
“My goal has always been to safely bring all kids back into the classroom at the start of the school year and … to keep them there,” Pritzker said in a press conference Wednesday, adding that “without these measures, we would likely see many more outbreaks than” schools experienced last year.
He later added that the state’s hope “is to make sure that every child can go to school this fall in a school environment that is safe for everyone.”
The mandate will apply to both public and private schools throughout Illinois, the governor said.
Pritzker also said the mandate includes all indoor recreation, meaning athletes must wear a mask while participating in indoor sports. Girls volleyball and swimming and diving are two sports that will take place indoors in the IHSA’s fall season.
Athletes competing in outdoor sports such as football, boys soccer, girls tennis and cross-country, will not need to wear masks, Pritzker said.
Earlier this summer, the CDC had previously recommended that only unvaccinated students and staff should wear masks in the schools.
Mask-wearing has been a topic of fierce local debate since the end of last school year, as schools districts throughout The Record’s coverage area — and state — have grappled with contention on both sides of the aisle.
As of publication time, New Trier High School, the largest district in the township, had yet to make an announcement on its mitigation measures for the 2021-22 school year.
“We are still finalizing our 2021-2022 Operational Plan, including COVID-19 mitigation protocols, and plan to announce it next week,” Niki Dizon, the district’s director of communications, told The Record via email. “We will await any updated state guidance.”
New Trier officials in mid-July did not commit to the previously-in-place CDC guidance recommending masks for unvaccinated individuals. Superintendent Dr. Paul Sally said at that time that the school would wait to see if further revisions to that guidance were made and would hope for public health agencies to allow local decisions.
Wilmette’s Loyola Academy had previously stated that masks are recommended but not required for vaccinated or unvaccinated individuals while on campus.
Elementary schools districts in New Trier Township have yet to provide clear indications of their plans for safety measures next school year.
The CDC recently changed the classification of Cook County, “indicating that there is substantial community transmission of COVID-19,” according to a press release from the Cook County Department of Public Health.
With the change in classification, the CDC recommended that all fully vaccinated people wear a mask in public indoor settings, a measure that was later reaffirmed by local health officials
The state counted 2,682 new cases of COVID-19 on Aug. 3, the highest total since May 7 (3,265), and it is averaging about 2,000 new cases for the last week.
COVID-related hospitalizations in the state have nearly tripled in a month, moving from 427 patients on July 7 to 1,107 on Aug. 1.
As reported by The Record last week, the spike is affecting New Trier Township.
According to data from Northwestern University, the new-case rate in township zip codes (60022, 60043, 60091, 60093) have surged since July 1, when there were 0 new cases counted per 100,000 people. That number was 17 on July 15 and is now 70 cases per 100,000 as of Aug. 3, the data shows.
Broken down further, news cases have grown in the township’s largest two communities, Winnetka and Wilmette, the latter of which recorded 55 new cases in the past two weeks (July 20-Aug. 3) — a five-fold increase over the previous two weeks, according to the county, and a 205 percent increase over the past seven weeks combined (18 cases from June 1-July 19), according to village data.
Similarly, in Winnetka, a dozen virus cases were reported last week, data shows.
In suburban Cook County, the average of 257 new cases per day has not been seen since May 15 (263), while the positivity rate has climbed to 4.5 (measured on a seven-day average) on July 30. The number was 0.8 percent on July 1.
The north district of suburban Cook, which includes New Trier Township, has the lowest positivity average of the four districts at 3.9 percent.
As of Aug. 2, 171 suburban county residents were hospitalized because of COVID-19, a 48.5 percent increase in two weeks (since July 16).
Although case levels in the township are increasing rapidly, vaccination rates remain well above state and national trends.
Northfield has the highest vaccination rate in the township as of publication time as 87.8 percent of the community’s population has received at least one vaccine dose. Nearly 71 percent (70.8) of Northfield residents are fully vaccinated.
In Wilmette, 76.9 percent of residents have received at least one dose. Data shows that 64.9 percent of residents are fully vaccinated.
Vaccination rates in Winnetka mirrored Wilmette as 79.6 percent of residents have at least one vaccine dose. The village has 64.5 percent of residents who are fully vaccinated.
Almost 72 percent of Glencoe residents have at least one vaccine dose, while 60.6 percent have completed the vaccination cycle.
In Kenilworth, 71.3 percent of residents have one vaccine dose and 56.7 percent are fully vaccinated.
In addition to the mask mandate for K-12 students, Pritzker also announced that Illinois will require vaccinations for state employees who work in congregate settings. That measure takes effect Oct. 4, according to the governor, who said he would enact it sooner if possible.
Pritzker lastly announced a universal mask mandate in all long-term care facilities across Illinois, including those that privately owned and operated.
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Martin Carlino is a co-founder and the senior editor who assigns and edits The Record stories, while also bylining articles every week. Martin is an experienced and award-winning education reporter who was the editor of The Northbrook Tower.