As part of the latest efforts to slow the spread of the delta variant, all pre-k – 12 teachers and staff, as well as higher education personnel and students, are being required to receive the COVID-19 vaccine or undergo routine testing.
Gov. JB Pritzker and Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike announced the new requirements Thursday for individuals in high-risk settings, which also includes healthcare workers and nursing home employees.
Employees in these settings and higher education students who are unable or unwilling to receive the vaccine will have to be tested for COVID-19 at minimum on a weekly basis, though the IDPH and Illinois State Board of Education may require increased testing in some situations, according to a news release from Pritzker's office.
The announcement came as COVID-19 infection and hospitalization rates across the state are on the rise, particularly in downstate communities with the lowest vaccination rates, according to the release.
In IDPH Region 5, Southern Illinois, which has the lowest vaccination rate in the state at 44 percent, only 3 percent of intensive care unit beds are available, according to the release.
“We are running out of time as our hospitals run out of beds," Pritzker said in the release.
“Unlike the wave of COVID-19 we saw earlier this spring, we’re now seeing our hospital resources stretched thin with some areas of Illinois reduced to only a handful of available ICU beds,” Ezike said in the release. “The vast majority of hospitalizations, as well as cases and deaths, are among those who are unvaccinated.”
Since Aug. 1, local health departments across the state have reported 27 COVID-19 outbreaks at schools, and currently hundreds of schools are being monitored for potential COVID-19 exposures, the release states.
Locally, no pre-k - 12 schools in Kankakee County had implemented mandatory vaccine policies.
Bourbonnais Elementary District 53 Superintendent Adam Erhman said schools are awaiting more specific information from the state regarding implementation of the vaccine mandate.
“There’s a lot of information that I think needs to come out to explain how this would all work and all of those moving parts,” he said.
For instance, the executive order defines school personnel, but it was unclear about the expectations for monitoring substitute teachers or staff. The distinction between obtaining “proof” or “confirmation” of a negative COVID-19 test is also an area that has not been fully explained.
“What I’ve been trying to have conversations about internally here, is let’s pause for a moment,” Ehrman said. “Let’s see if we can truly understand what all of this means and make sure we keep focus on the main thing, which is educating our students.”
Roughly 180 out of 350 employees signed up for the district's vaccination clinics last spring, he said, noting that there's some staff changeover from year to year, and some have gotten vaccinated at other locations.
“It is such a critical time for everybody around the country right now, that adding any more pressure that can potentially put organizations such as a school system in a bind of being able to make sure we are fully staffed is going to be difficult,” he added.
Rosie Williams, director of health clinics for Kankakee School District 111, estimated that at least 50 percent or more of staff members have already been vaccinated. About 50 percent of staff participated in the first two clinics the district hosted, and some have come to later clinics or gotten vaccinated at other sites, she said.
“I believe that most people are concerned about staff safety and the safety of our student population, so it is my belief that most people will follow the recommendations of our state and local officials,” Williams said.
She noted that she has gotten several inquiries from staff members asking about booster shots, which she said the district would be happy to provide in collaboration with the state and local health departments once they are available.
She said the district has already been providing rapid COVID-19 testing for students and staff at its school-based health centers at the junior high and high school. The testing has been available since November.
“We don’t have any objections to doing that [extra testing],” Williams said. “We want to make it as easy and accessible to our staff as possible."
Change of plans
The county’s higher education institutions, Kankakee Community College and Olivet Nazarene University, had no plans to mandate vaccines for staff or students, though KCC was offering a free class to vaccinated students as an incentive.
ONU was already planning to require unvaccinated students to undergo weekly COVID-19 saliva testing, which was available for students last year as well.
Students leave their tests at drop-off locations on campus, and the tests are run by the university’s biology department. Students are asked to see the nurse in the event of a positive test result.
Katelynn Roscioli, a sophomore music education major at ONU, said she feels the expectation to wear masks to protect others is reasonable; however, there should be more emphasis on choice for vaccines.
She said she hopes to be able to get vaccinated in the future pending discussions with her doctor, but she has not been able to yet for health reasons. She said she knows many others are in the same position.
“I think the pressure to get [vaccinated] isn’t necessarily as fair,” Roscioli said. “There’s a lot of pressure from the media, from everywhere, people telling you you have to get vaccinated, but some people can’t.”
Wendall Marshall, a freshman interior design major at ONU, said he plans to do the weekly COVID-19 testing rather than get the vaccine. He said he feels the government should not be forcing people to get vaccinated.
“I hope I don’t catch it, but if I do catch it, I’m still not going to take the vaccine,” he said. “I’m just going to do what I have to do to quarantine myself from people, and just pray and ask God to heal me from it. Whoever does catch it, I’m going to pray for them, too.”