Pritzker keeps mask mandates for schools indefinitely

Pritzker keeps mask mandates for schools indefinitely

The governor’s maintenance of statewide school mask mandates without benchmarks for their removal makes Illinois an outlier.

After a flurry of Democratic governors rushed to announce the impending end of their state mask mandates, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Feb. 9 Illinois’ general indoor mask mandate will be lifted Feb. 28, provided current declines in COVID-19 hospitalizations and increased hospital capacity continue.

Yet while Illinoisans will soon be free to go maskless into bars, restaurants, retail stores, sporting venues and health clubs, the governor said masks in Illinois schools will still be required.

The continuation of the statewide mask requirement for schools leaves Illinois in a shrinking group of states. And the governor’s decision comes at a time when many medical experts across the country are calling for returning children to more normal school environments.

The governor’s maintenance of mask mandates and other COVID-19 restrictions in schools, while refusing to provide clear and certain metrics for ending them, keeps Illinois an outlier.

Shrinking minority of states still impose statewide mask mandates in schools   

Illinois was one of only 11 states with a statewide mask mandate in K-12 schools as of Feb. 2, according to data gathered by The New York Times. And that number will soon shrink to no more than seven asConnecticut’s Democratic governor said he plans to lift his statewide school mask mandate on Feb. 28, and Democratic administrations in Oregon, Delaware and New Jersey announced plans to lift their school mask mandates in March. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said New York’s school mask mandate will be revisited in early March.

More doctors calling for normal school routines, lifting mask mandates

With the recent wave of COVID-19 receding in many places, including Illinois, medical experts have increasingly called for returning children to more normal school routines and activities.

A group of scientists, infectious disease specialists, ICU and emergency room physicians, pediatricians and internal medicine doctors, among others, has compiled data about the harms to children’s mental, physical, emotional and social health from pandemic-related school closures and restrictions to draw attention to the “urgency of normal.” They argue that COVID-19 mitigation measures have imposed too steep a cost on children’s wellbeing and development compared to the small risk that COVID-19 now poses in schools in an era of widely available, effective vaccines and highly protective N95 and similar masks that can protect the wearer regardless of whether others are masked. The group recommends lifting mask mandates in schools and avoiding quarantines for asymptomatic students. More than 1,170 health care professionals have signed on to the group’s statement.

In addition to this group, Leana Wen, the former health commissioner of Baltimore and a professor at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, has noted the need to recognize the costs inflicted by the continuation of masking, such as the difficulty it imposes on young children who need to learn to read people’s faces as part of normal development. Wen previously advocated for universal masking but said the changed COVID landscape and the mounting harms mean masking can now appropriately be an “individual decision.”

The Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania has also endorsed making masks optional in places where COVID numbers are improving. And former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, commenting on the impending expiration of Connecticut’s mask mandate, said, “A lot of kids haven’t really known a normal school day for two years now, so we want to – we need to try to lean forward aggressively to try to restore that and reclaim it when we can.”

Pritzker redoubles efforts to maintain masking authority

Pritzker’s statement on schools comes amid the uncertainty following a Feb. 4 Sangamon County court ordertemporarily halting the enforcement of the statewide school mask mandate, COVID-19 quarantine policies, and school staff vaccination and testing rules. Schools and the more than 140 districts that were named defendants in the lawsuits that prompted the temporary restraining order cobbled together makeshift COVID policies in response to the court’s order. The governor called the ruling “misguided” and said it would deprive schools of “sufficient tools to keep students and staff safe.” The attorney general is appealing it.

Now, while only a handful of states will still have universal school mask mandates by the end of March, and as more and more medical experts are advocating for returning students to normal school routines and activities, Pritzker remains intent on maintaining the status quo for Illinois school children.

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