With the deadline for local school employees to get at least the single-shot COVID-19 vaccine by Sept. 5, many school officials have worked themselves into a frenzy, scrambling to piece together a plan and meet the governor’s latest order.
In an Aug. 26 press conference, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced that all public and private school and university employees must receive the single-dose COVID-19 vaccine or the first dose of a two-shot vaccine by Sept. 5, over Labor Day weekend. The mandate – which also applies to college students and healthcare workers – left school administrators just days to track down hundreds of students’ and employees’ current vaccination status, set a schedule for Covid testing, and figure out the terms if they do not comply.
Karin Sullivan, director of communications at Oak Park and River Forest High School, said the question isn’t whether OPRF will follow through with Pritzker’s order. It’s about working out the finer details of the directive and providing guidance to roughly 500 employees. This year, staff and students could voluntarily share their vaccination status, she said. At this point, 84% of OPRF employees are fully vaccinated.
According to the vaccine mandate, those who opt out of the Covid vaccine because of medical or religious reasons are subject to, “at a minimum,” weekly testing.
“Are we going to test once a week? Are we going to test more frequently?” said Sullivan of the details that OPRF District 200 leaders and members of the district’s four collective bargaining units are discussing now during “impact negotiations.”
Prior to Pritzker’s Aug. 26 announcement, District 200 and Oak Park Elementary School District 97 had sought to pursue their own vaccine mandate for their employees.
Sullivan said there are parts of the vaccine mandate that seem rather unclear, including the definition of “school personnel” and if those who are unvaccinated because of choice – not because of medical or religious reasons – can qualify for Covid testing.
Sullivan said she wondered whether athletic referees or even construction workers are considered “school personnel” and would need to get fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or get tested.
The mandate stated that “school personnel” includes people who are employed by, contracted to or volunteer for a school or school district. Those individuals must be in the school for more than 15 minutes at least once a week “on a regular basis as determined by the school,” the guidelines read.
Sullivan said again, there are those details “that the state has not given us any solid direction on, and districts are getting different information from their legal counsel. So, we really, really need those specifics from the state, and we have no idea when we might get those.”
Over at District 97, Amanda Siegfried, communications director, said collecting and verifying their employees’ vaccination status was tedious, not “super challenging.” Siegfried said the district’s biggest issue is setting up the COVID-19 testing program for faculty and staff, as there has already been a delay to start the program for their students.
D97 sought to begin weekly Covid testing for students Aug. 30 but experienced a setback due to the large number of school districts working with SHIELD this year. More than 1,200 schools in Illinois, including District 200 and River Forest School District 90, have teamed up with SHIELD, a program from the University of Illinois that offers free COVID-19 saliva tests, according to a news release from the university.
“And then, the governor’s mandate came,” Siegfried said, adding the district recently moved the testing date to Sept. 2. “I think what’s happening is that it’s placing a lot of stress on the providers.”
District administrators, elected officials and members of four collective bargaining units continue to negotiate the terms of the vaccine mandate.
“The deadline is challenging,” Siegfried said, “but we’re doing everything possible to ensure that we’re in compliance.”
‘How do we do it?’
In River Forest, officials from River Forest School District 90 and Concordia University Chicago are working under the same constraints. Like District 200 and District 97, the two schools are still gathering their employees’ vaccination information and navigating the mandate’s request.
Echoing Sullivan and Siegfried, Dawne Simmons of District 90, said the toughest part about meeting Pritzker’s latest mandate is “trying to pivot to get this done.”
“The executive order says what we have to do, but we still need to know how we do it,” said Simmons, District 90’s communications and community outreach coordinator.
“The governor provided us with what we had to do,” said Simmons. “The how – trying to figure out all of the details and all of the specifics and all of the logistics of how do we do it – has been the challenge. Trying to do this quickly within less than a week. …”
At Concordia, university officials have yet to decide what repercussions staff and students could face if they do not meet the governor’s order, said Eric Matanyi, an associate vice president for communications and marketing. Matanyi said the university has yet to finalize the number of staff and students who are fully vaccinated.
The university, which is currently offering the two-dose Moderna COVID-19 shot, has launched vaccination clinic dates for staff and students. Clinics will be held from 1 to 3 p.m. Sept. 10 and 17 in various locations on CUC’s campus. Pre-registration is required. For more information on Concordia’s COVID-19 guidelines, visit www.cuchicago.edu/general-information/covid-19-information/.
Unlike the schools in Oak Park and River Forest, Dominican University had previously required its staff and students to be fully vaccinated against Covid before returning to campus. As of Aug. 30, 91% of faculty and staff and 86% of students are fully vaccinated, said Jessica Mackinnon, director of public information.
“We didn’t really have to pivot,” Mackinnon said.
Mackinnon shared that DU updated its vaccination requirement guidelines to include penalties. By Sept. 24, all students must have uploaded their COVID-19 vaccination records, or they will be dismissed from the fall semester. Students can re-enroll once they provide proof of their vaccination status or an exemption form.
“We are allowing medical and religious exemptions, but we need to know that, too,” Mackinnon said. “In other words, you just can’t not let us know what your vaccination status is.”
Full-time faculty and staff who do not submit a vaccination survey and disclose their status by Sept. 24 may face disciplinary action. At this point, a majority of faculty and staff have already completed the survey, she said.
DU is planning to hold a vaccination clinic for students and staff. Details are forthcoming. DU is also offering free COVID-19 self-test kits for faculty, staff and students which can be found at different locations on campus, Mackinnon said.