School staff vaccine mandate

New rules in Illinois urge school staff to get the shot

"We are facing a time of great decision here. We want our kids back in school, but we want them to be safe – that is the highest priority," said U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Springfield.

On Aug. 26, Durbin gathered reporters to talk about COVID-19 and schools, during which he "wholeheartedly" endorsed the governor's call for a COVID-19 vaccine requirement for school staff, along with other mitigation measures. "Leadership at the state level is essential," said Durbin.

On the call was Dr. Larry Kociolek who directs the infection prevention and control program at Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago. Kociolek said over the past six to eight weeks, Lurie Children's has seen a more than 500% increase in the number of children testing positive for COVID-19. While most infected children don't face complications, the sheer volume of cases means there has been a slight increase in children hospitalized for COVID-19. "If these trends continue, we'll expect to see further increases in hospitalizations and, quite possibly, deaths, preventable deaths," said Kociolek. He added that now that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine, it is likely children will be able to get vaccinated in the near future. Many hope the approval will also help persuade the willfully unvaccinated who are already eligible.

Last week, Pritzker announced widespread vaccine mandates that include teachers in all schools, preschool through college. Masks are also now required in public indoor settings across the state. As cases continue to climb and the more contagious delta variant spreads, hospitals are running out of beds. Pritzker warned the situation will likely worsen in the days ahead.

In Springfield, District 186 kicked off the school year on Monday, Aug. 23. As of Aug. 30, 83 students had tested positive in the past week and 11 staff, according to a COVID-19 dashboard on the district website. That was out of 13,380 students currently enrolled and 2,130 current staff, according to the website as of Aug. 30. In all, 975 students were in exclusion as of Aug. 30 – and 27 staff. The district said some of the people in exclusion included those who went into quarantine or isolation prior to the beginning of school. Exclusion includes those staying away from school to monitor symptoms due to exposure.

Gail O'Neill is director of the Sangamon County Department of Public Health. She told Illinois Times that transmission is happening outside of school, such as during sports activities or other gatherings. She said she is not aware of any confirmed cases of in-school transmission of COVID-19 in the area so far this school year. In District 186, positive cases are highest so far among high school students, who generally have more contact with the larger community. As of Aug. 30, she said there was no one in the area under age 20 with COVID-19 who was hospitalized. While rare, there have been some area cases of youth with multisystem inflammatory syndrome, a serious COVID-19 related condition, she said. 

O'Neill said the county will follow the state mandate for school staff vaccination which requires employees get vaccinated or agree to regular COVID-19 testing starting Sept. 5. When it comes to enforcement, she said that will be up to the schools to oversee. "I don't see the county taking a lead."

According to District 186, most school staff – 1,973 workers – have shared their vaccination status. Of those, 1,513 report being fully vaccinated, 31 have had a first dose, 143 are unvaccinated and 286 chose not to answer. District 186 Supt. Jennifer Gill told Illinois Times via email on Aug. 30 that she expects the number of vaccinated staff to increase due to the governor's executive order and communication about it sent to staff by the district.

She said the governor's decision provides a clear path forward. Gill added that prior to the order, the district was already planning to use rapid saliva tests for students and staff at certain schools. "High schools will begin testing next week. We could also begin testing staff at those sites initially," said Gill. She added that the district is awaiting further guidance from the Illinois State Board of Education.  

Teachers unions in Illinois support the vaccine mandate for staff. Angie Meneghetti is president of the Springfield Education Association. While she said she's not generally a fan of mandates, vaccines work.

She said she's concerned about the current number of positive cases. It's up to the local health department to decide who has to quarantine due to exposure. It's already disrupting in-person school for many students, and not just those who test positive. "The goal is to keep the kids in school. However, at what expense?" If things don't improve, Meneghetti said a remote or hybrid option will seem increasingly necessary. Social distancing is tricky in overcrowded classrooms and, regardless, kids are unmasking indoors to eat together. She said she hopes an increase in staff vaccination might help stabilize the situation, and noted a widespread push to get students who are eligible vaccinated as well. 

Meneghetti said there are teachers who would prefer to teach remotely for now, as kids under age 12 wait to become eligible for vaccination. She said some "kids are nervous too. There's a sense of relief of being back in school, but there's also a sense of the unknown," she said. "Kids need to feel secure in schools." Like the school staff vaccine mandate, it seems that the decision on whether remote or hybrid school might be offered is up to the Pritzker administration.

Contact Rachel Otwell at rotwell@illinoistimes.com.

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