CHICAGO (CBS) -- Citing the "growing threat" of the delta variant of COVID-19, Gov. JB Pritzker on Wednesday announced a new statewide mask mandate for public and private schools in Illinois.
Effective immediately, the mandate covers students, teachers, and staff in preschool through 12th grade throughout the state, including both public and private schools.
Some school districts, including the Chicago Public Schools, already were planning to require masks for students and staff for the upcoming school year, but Pritzker said too many others have chosen to make masks optional, despite the growing threat of the more contagious delta variant.
"Far too few school districts have chosen to follow the Centers for Disease Control prescriptions for keeping students and staff safe," Pritzker said Wednesday afternoon. "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 he's confident his new school mask mandate could survive potential legal challenges from parents opposed to requiring masks for students, some who have already threatened lawsuits, claiming he doesn't have the power to require masks in schools.
"We have the legal authority to enforce this, and we will if necessary. What we think is going to happen is that schools will follow this, do the right thing. Again, this is about keeping our children and their families safe," he said.
The governor said, without a mask requirement in schools, Illinois would likely see more outbreaks than in the latter half of the last school year.
"Preventing outbreaks from the start also prevents kids from having to stay home because they're sick or in quarantine," he said.
Pritzker said students and staff with respiratory problems or other medical issues that make them unable to tolerate wearing the mask will be granted exemptions.
Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said masks are a critical tool to stopping the spread of the virus, but said the vaccine is the best tool available.
However, because children under the age of 12 cannot yet receive the vaccine, Ezike said a school mask mandate is the best way to protect those kids at school.
In addition to masks inside schools, the governor said face coverings would be required for all indoor recreation and sports programs in preschool through 12th grade, though masks won't be required for players and coaches while outdoors, where the risk of spreading COVID-19 is lower.
The governor said his administration is prepared to provide free masks to school districts that need them, and the state is also encouraging school districts to conduct regular testing to detect potential outbreaks early.
Pritzker said, in addition to the school mask mandate, school districts can implement further COVID-19 mitigations, such as installing plastic dividers to separate students' desks, or increasing social distancing within schools.
The governor said he's also issuing a vaccine mandate for state employees who work in congregate settings, such as prisons, veterans homes, and psychiatric hospitals, effective Oct. 4, giving those workers time to get fully vaccinated.
"Our most vulnerable residents, such as veterans who can't live on their own, and adults living with developmental disabilities have no choice but to live amongst these workers," he said.
The governor said, while the vast majority of residents in the state's veterans' homes have been fully vaccinated, many of the employees who work in those facilities have not.
"They 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, and in Illinois it's going to stop," he said.
The governor said the state has notified labor unions about the new safety measures, and asked them to come to the bargaining table to negotiate details of the vaccine mandate.
Pritzker said he's also issuing a statewide mask mandate for all long-term care facilities in the state, including those that are privately vaccinated. The mandate will cover residents, staff, and visitors.
"This is already standard practice in much of the industry, but while the delta variant rages on, I want to leave no doubt on the need for compliance," he said.
Asked if the school mask mandate is a potential first step to requiring kids under age 12 to go back to remote learning next school year, Pritzker said he is not considering that kind of move.
"That is not on the table. We have many different tools today than we had … eight months or 12 months ago," he said. "That is, we have vaccinations available. People should go get vaccinated. That is the most important thing that you can do to keep yourself, your community, your school safe. WE hope that people will take advantage of that. That will reduce the need to have masks."
As for how the state plans to enforce the school mask mandate, Pritzker said most school districts already were planning to require masks for students and staff, but those that don't follow the state mandate risk losing their liability insurance.
"If you're not following the state mandate, it is reasonable that someone might file a lawsuit against a school if someone gets sick in that school as a result of a school simply not following these mitigations," he said.
Pritzker said the Illinois State Board of Education has the power to strip a school of its state recognition status, which is used to show whether or not a school is in compliance with state codes and regulations.
"I don't expect that we'll have to go there, but that is another enforcement mechanism," he said.
However, Pritzker did not say what schools are supposed to do if students show up without masks.
The new school mask mandate drew immediate backlash from the Republicans planning to run against Pritzker in next year's election. State Sen. Darren Bailey, of downstate Xenia, called Pritzker a "tyrant" in a Twitter thread he posted before the governor's official announcement.
"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," Bailey wrote.
Bailey, who unsuccessfully challenged the governor's COVID-19 restrictions in court last year, said "it's time to stop this nonsense."
"I will fight to my last breath for freedom and common-sense policies. Call your school board members and tell them to stand up. Local control matters. Your voice matters; mental health matters," he wrote.
Former Illinois State Sen. Paul Schimpf, of downstate Waterloo, another GOP candidate for governor, said the governor's school mask mandate "usurps the authority of parents, school board members, and superintendents, further undermining confidence in the rule of law."
"I vehemently disagree with Governor Pritzker's action today," Schimpf said in a statement.
Pritzker's latest moves to slow the spread of COVID-19 come as Illinois has seen a significant increase in new cases in recent weeks.
The governor said, since the state reached its lowest case numbers earlier this summer, COVID-19 cases have soared by a factor of nearly 10, and hospitalizations and ICU rates have doubled in the past month. He said the increases have occurred almost entirely among people who are not vaccinated.
The governor said, in June, 96% of people who were hospitalized with COVID were either unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated.
"Every time we think we know where this virus is headed, it changes and it shifts," he said.
Illinois is averaging 2,099 new COVID cases per day over the past week, a nearly sixfold increase over four weeks ago, and the statewide seven-day average case positivity rate is at 4.4%, up from 0.9% at the start of July.
New hospital admissions for COVID-19-like illnesses have nearly tripled in the past month, up from 40 admissions on July 5 to 115 on Aug 1.
However, vaccinations also have begun climbing in the past week, after the CDC recommended that fully vaccinated people in parts of the country that have "substantial or high transmission" of the virus should resume wearing masks indoors.
While the vaccination rate in Illinois was largely flat for most of July, it has gone up sharply in the past week, from an average of 17,982 doses per day one week ago, to 28,180 doses per day as of Tuesday night, a 57% increase.
The governor said Illinois has a limited amount of time to avoid another wave of cases similar to the fall surge last year, which saw cases rise to as high as more than 10,000 per day in November and December.
"Unlike last year at this time, we now have an extremely effective tool to save lives and keep our hospital systems from being overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients. It will allow us to support kids' full return to in-person learning, it will keep businesses open, and it's easy to get. It's the vaccine," Pritzker said.
The governor said everyone in Illinois who is eligible for the vaccine, but who hasn't already been vaccinated, should get their shot to help protect those who can't yet receive it, in particular children under 12.
Ezike also sought to stem fears of breakthrough infections, which are cases in which people who have been fully vaccinated nonetheless are infected with the virus.
"Please understand that these instances represent only a fraction of the people who have been vaccinated," she said.
Of the more than 6 million people fully vaccinated in Illinois, only 714 have been hospitalized, and 180 have died of COVDI-19.
"The overwhelming majority of cases, the hospitalizations, the deaths, are among those who are not vaccinated; and the majority of transmission is also among the unvaccinated. Thus the phrase that it has become a pandemic of the unvaccinated," she said. "The key is that we actually have the tools to turn the tide on the next wave, and that next wave wants to threaten us if we don't avail ourselves of these tools."
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