The Illinois Department of Public Health is "fully adopting" the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's updated COVID-19 guidance for masking in schools, the department announced Friday.
According to the new guidance, vaccinated teachers and students don't need to wear masks inside school buildings, a change that comes amid a national vaccination campaign in which children as young as 12 are eligible to get shots, as well as a general decline in COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths.
"The CDC is right," said IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike in a statement. "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. IDPH is proud to fully adopt school guidance issued by CDC, which is based on the latest scientific information about COVID-19."
The IDPH said this updated school guidance aligns with guidance for fully vaccinated people in the state.
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According to the IDPH, major elements of the updated guidance include:
• Masks should be worn indoors by all individuals (age 2 and older) who are not fully vaccinated.
• CDC recommends schools maintain at least 3 feet of physical distance between students within classrooms, combined with indoor mask wearing by people who are not fully vaccinated, to reduce transmission risk. When it is not possible to maintain a physical distance of at least 3 feet, such as when schools cannot fully re-open while maintaining these distances, it is especially important to layer multiple other prevention strategies, such as indoor masking.
• Screening testing, ventilation, handwashing and respiratory etiquette, staying home when sick and getting tested, contact tracing in combination with quarantine and isolation, and cleaning and disinfection are also important layers of prevention to keep schools safe.
• Many schools serve children under the age of 12 who are not eligible for vaccination at this time. Therefore, this guidance emphasizes implementing layered prevention strategies (masking, distancing, testing) to protect people who are not fully vaccinated.
Ezike and IDPH encouraged schools and communities to "monitor community transmission of COVID-19, vaccination coverage, screening testing and outbreaks to guide decisions about on the level of layered prevention strategies being implemented."
State Supt. of Education Dr. Carmen Ayala issued a declaration mandating in-person learning for the upcoming school year with limited exceptions. According to the declaration, remote instruction will be made available for students who have not received a COVID-19 vaccine or who are not eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine, "only while they are under quarantine consistent with guidance or requirements from a local public health department or the Illinois Department of Public Health."
"All our students deserve to return safely in-person to schools this fall," said Dr. Ayala in a statement. "With vaccination rates continually rising and unprecedented federal funding to support safe in-person learning, and mitigations such as contact tracing and increased ventilation in place in schools, we are fully confident in the safety of in-person learning this fall. We look forward to a great school year and to the energy of Illinois’ young minds once again filling our school buildings."
Shortly after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the new COVID-19 guidance for masking in schools, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker told reporters he was "very pleased" to see the recommendations released.
Pritzker said at an unrelated news conference Friday that upon his first read of the guidance, he feels the CDC's goals are the same as his own: "getting every child ... back into school this fall."
"I will say it also focuses on what I have focused on for more than a year now," Pritzker said, "which is everybody's safety and health. So the combination of that I think was, seems to have been achieved."
Early in the pandemic, health officials worried schools might become coronavirus cauldrons that spark community outbreaks. But studies have shown that schools often see less transmission than the surrounding community when certain prevention measures are followed.
The new guidance is the latest revision to advice the CDC began making to schools last year.
In March, the CDC stopped recommending that children and their desks be spaced 6 feet apart, shrinking the distance to 3 feet, and dropped its call for use of plastic shields.
In May, the agency said Americans in general don’t have to be as cautious about masks and distancing outdoors, and that fully vaccinated people don’t need masks in most situations. That change was incorporated into updated guidance for summer camps — and now, schools.