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'Hard to disagree': Southern Illinois leaders react to Pritzker's school mask mandate

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School supplies for this fall include face masks following a mandate announced Wednesday by Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

Add face masks to the school supply shopping list.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Wednesday issued a new mask mandate for all Illinois day cares and pre-K-12 schools amid a nationwide surge of COVID-19 cases. 

Du Quoin Community Unit School District No. 300 Superintendent Matthew Hickam told The Southern that if it takes masks for a return to “regular school," he is open to the idea. 

“I hope people remember where we were this time last year: We were wanting to get to a normal school schedule. That plan is in place now for in-person school all day and to have extra-curricular activities, too. If masks are one of the things we have to do for all of that, I think we can tolerate,” Hickam said. 

Pritzker’s announcement also included a vaccine mandate for state employees who work in prisons, veterans’ homes and other settings. Masks will also be mandated at long-term care facilities.

“Every time we think we know where this virus is headed, it changes and it shifts,” Pritzker said at a COVID-19 news briefing in Chicago. “For example, unlike before, people 29 years old and younger accounted for 12 percent of hospitalizations. All across the nation, we are seeing young people with no underlying conditions now on ventilators. I want to say specifically to young adults: Please do not think that the worst case scenario can't happen to you. It can happen. It is happening. Get vaccinated.”

Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said youth hospitalizations and infections have been rising.

About 5.5% of COVID-19 cases were among those who are younger than 10 years of age in January, Ezike said, but that number increased to 15% last month. Approximately 13% of cases in January were among those 10-19 years old, increasing to 23% in July. Hospitalizations for those 20 years old and younger have tripled from 2.5% to 7.8% in that time span.

Pritzker’s announcement came as 1,165 people were hospitalized for COVID-19, including 246 in intensive care unit beds and 94 on ventilators as of Tuesday night

The state’s seven-day average case positivity rate for COVID-19 was 4.4 percent as of Wednesday, while the state reported another 18 deaths, a high since June 24. That brought the death toll to 23,476 since the pandemic began with another 2,428 deaths reported with probable links to COVID-19.

'Hard to disagree'

Many school districts across the region and state already had been weighing their options regarding students and masks in the wake of new guidelines issued last week by the Centers for Disease Control recommending that everyone wear masks in schools, regardless of vaccination status.

The Illinois Department of Public Health adopted the CDC’s guidance.

As of Tuesday, the Illinois State Board of Education had not made a public announcement of any requirement, only pointing to the IDPH’s adoption of the CDC guidance on the ISBE website.

However, some Southern Illinois school districts had already decided to make mask wearing a requirement even before Wednesday's announcement.

Carbondale Community High School District Superintendent Daniel Booth told The Southern in a text message on Tuesday, “We are going to require them.”

Previously, the district had announced plans to make masks optional. Booth was unavailable for comment following Pritzker’s announcement.

Hickam said his district also had plans to start the year with masks as an optional accessory.

“Our approach was to be layered, based on the level of transmissions that we were experiencing in our area and schools,” he explained. “In a low transmission phase, masks would not have been mandated.”

With Wednesday’s announcement, he said Du Quoin schools will follow the mandate. He said in this period of higher rates of COVID-19 infections, he understands the needs to be cautious, especially as students are returning to in-person instruction.

“The risk is higher because everyone will be here at the same time and the Delta variant seems to be more contagious. It’s hard to disagree with the mandate, even though I like the idea of local control, but to look at what has actually happened, I completely understand.”

Superintendent Nathaniel Wilson said Herrin Community Unit School District No. 4 will work with the mandate to make certain masks are available.

“We will be getting masks to make them available to students, faculty or visitors who need them,” he said.

Hickam added that he is hopeful for a decrease in new COVID-19 rates.

“When cases go back down, and they will, I hope that we’ll quickly see the mandate go away.”

Brandy Newman, parent of an incoming first grader at General John A. Logan Attendance Center in Murphysboro, said she appreciates the benefits of students wearing face masks.

“It’s not just for the coronavirus, but also for everything else that kids spread – regular stuff like colds,” she said.

Newman as well as superintendents Hickam and Wilson said school with masks is preferred over other options.

“This is so much better, just having them in school. The remote learning did not work well for us last year,” Newman said.

The Illinois Department of Public Health also announced Wednesday that it was expanding access to free saliva-based COVID-19 testing to all elementary schools outside of Chicago. The Chicago school district received federal funding for testing.

“In-person learning is a priority and we want to make sure students, teachers, and staff are able to return to the classroom as safely as possible,” said IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike. “With the surge in COVID-19 cases and Delta variant, the sooner we know if someone has been infected, the quicker we can take action to prevent the spread of the virus to others. Not only is testing the best way to identify these cases, it can also help keep kids in school with a new Test-to-Stay protocol. We encourage all school districts to take advantage of this free resource.”  

Test-to-Stay is an alternative to quarantine. Students and teachers who have been identified as a close contact of a positive COVID-19 case now have the option of a Test-to-Stay protocol.  Close contacts must be tested on days 1, 3, 5, and 7 after exposure.  As long as close contacts remain negative, they are not required to quarantine. 

“If it takes masks to keep us in school all day, every day, that’s what we are going to do,” he said.

-- Jerry Nowicki of Capitol News Illinois contributed to this report. 

Tom Karnes with LaMacchia Travel Agency joins FOX6 WakeUp with what you need to know if you're looking to book a flight.

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Higher Education Reporter

Les covers higher education as well as business and faith. A three-degree graduate of SIU, he has written for The Southern since 2009, joining the newsroom staff in 2021. Contact him at les.odell@thesouthern.com or 618-351-5036.

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