Nearly a week ago, the Oak Park District 97 school board announced its pursuit of a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for their employees. But a new order from Gov. J.B. Pritzker leaves no room for discussion, forcing school officials to act quickly and meet the governor’s guidelines.
By Sept. 5, all public and private school and university employees must receive a single-dose or the first dose of a two-dose COVID-19 shot, according to an Aug. 26 announcement from Pritzker. Individuals need to get the second shot of the two-dose within 30 days after the first dose. The vaccine mandate also applies to college students and healthcare workers. Those who do not get the COVID-19 vaccine or opt out for medical or religious reasons will be tested at least once a week.
In addition to the vaccine mandate, Pritzker reimposed a mask requirement, which took effect Aug. 30. Illinois residents over the age of 2 must wear face masks when indoors, regardless of their vaccination status. Pritzker issued a universal mask order early last month for K-12 staff and students in all public and private schools, as well as daycare centers.
The new directives came just days after Illinois schools, including District 97, began to reopen for full-time in-person learning amid reports of a recent uptick in COVID cases and hospitalizations, especially in areas with low vaccination rates, surfaced. Since Aug. 1, local health departments across the state have reported 27 COVID-19 outbreaks at schools and are monitoring hundreds of schools for potential COVID-19 exposures, according to a news release issued by the governor’s office.
“The quick spread of this disease in Illinois and across the country is holding us all back from the post-pandemic life we so desperately want to embrace, and it’s harming the most vulnerable among us,” Pritzker said in a statement. “We are running out of time as our hospitals run out of beds. Vaccination remains our strongest tool to protect ourselves and our loved ones, to restore post-pandemic life to our communities, and most crucially, to maintain our healthcare system’s ability to care for anyone who walks through their doors in need of help – and Illinois is taking action to keep our communities safe.”
In Oak Park, 68% of residents (37,077) are fully vaccinated, and 72% (39,691) have gotten the first dose of a two-dose Covid shot, according to an Aug. 24 report from the Oak Park Department of Public Health. Though Oak Park public officials stated that the number of residents vaccinated against COVID-19 continues to grow, it is increasing at a slow rate.
One step at a time
Prior to Pritzker’s Aug. 26 announcement, District 200 and District 97 leaders, administrators and union representatives were working on a plan that could have led to a Covid vaccine mandate for faculty and staff.
D200 employees received an email Aug. 25 – the day before Pritzker’s press conference – from the human resources department about facing a possible Covid vaccine mandate, said Karin Sullivan, director of communications and community relations at OPRF. The email also notified employees that those who are unvaccinated could be subject to mandatory testing.
Sullivan said district officials are currently reviewing the governor’s order and “will have procedures in place to ensure that we are in compliance with the deadlines in the order.”
Amanda Siegfried, senior director of communications at District 97, echoed Sullivan and said that the District 97 school board issued a similar statement to staff and families. In an email sent Aug. 20, elected officials talked about plans to work with their school administrators and collective bargaining units on enforcing a possible vaccine mandate for all D97 employees.
“We are still engaging in negotiations with our unions,” Siegfried said, adding the district has also consulted their attorneys to develop a plan on the new requirements.
In nearby River Forest, school officials are also looking over Pritzker’s latest order.
“We’ve been following the governor’s mandates from the beginning,” said Dawne Simmons, a communications and community outreach coordinator at D90.
Unlike District 200 and District 97 in Oak Park, District 90 officials had not “embarked” on any prior conversations to enforce its own Covid vaccine mandate for district faculty and staff, Simmons said. Like most school districts, D90 followed and maintained safety mitigations, as released by the governor, Illinois State Board of Education, Illinois Department of Public Health and Cook County Department of Public Health, she said.
River Forest is also home to Dominican University and Concordia University Chicago.
Before Pritzker ordered a Covid vaccine mandate for university employees and students, Dominican set its own rule for staff and students to be fully vaccinated before returning to campus. Students living on campus had to complete their Covid vaccinations and provide proof of their vaccination status before moving into their residence halls for the 2021-22 school year, stated a newsletter on the university’s website.
Concordia officials, however, “strongly encouraged” faculty, staff and students to get the shot, but did not require them. According to their COVID-19 guidelines for the 2021-22 school year, the university said, “We trust the science related to the vaccine but also respect each individuals’ right to make the best personal choice for themself.”
In an email sent Aug. 30 to Concordia employees and students, university officials shared with them details of three free vaccination clinics. Clinics will be held from 1 to 3 p.m. Sept, 3, 10 and 17 in various locations on campus. Appointments at those on-site clinics are first-come, first-serve for CUC staff and students, the email stated. CUC is offering the two-dose Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.
Pre-registration is required, and additional dates for vaccination clinics will be announced later. For more information on Concordia’s COVID-19 guidelines, visit www.cuchicago.edu/general-information/covid-19-information/.