Officials in Homewood District 153, Flossmoor District 161 and Homewood-Flossmoor High School will be working to meet Gov. J.B. Pritzker's directive announced on Thursday, Aug. 26, that K-12 teachers and staff will be required to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or get tested weekly. He also issued an expanded mask mandate, now requiring everyone to wear a mask indoors, regardless of vaccination status.
Pritzker cited the Delta variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 as the cause of the new requirement. The variant continues to fuel a surge in cases that is putting stress on healthcare resources across the state, especially in central and southern regions where vaccination rates are lower.
The mask mandate will go into effect Monday, Aug. 30.
The vaccination requirement will apply to all healthcare workers, including nursing home employees, all pre-K through 12th grade teachers and staff, as well as higher education teachers, staff and students.
"Unfortunately, our current vaccination levels are not enough to blunt the ferocity of the Delta variant," Pritzker said.
The vaccination mandate might affect relatively few local teachers, according to school officials.
Homewood District 153 Superintendent Scott McAlister said about 85% of teachers are already vaccinated.
The Board of Education had already been working on a vaccine mandate in cooperation with its teachers union before Pritzker’s announcement. The school board will meet in special session at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 31, to vote on the agreement with the union.
He said the district was intending to implement the policy “for the safety of everyone” in the district. The agreement was being renewed by attorneys so the school board can proceed.
At the Flossmoor District 161 board meeting on July 19, Superintendent Dana Smith said about 95% of teachers are vaccinated.
"I welcome today's announcement from Gov. Pritzker on the vaccine requirement and between increased vaccination numbers, consistent mask use, and other COVID-19 precautions, we are moving forward with in-person learning in District 161. We are preparing to launch our SHIELD testing protocol in the next week and half, so we will be able to fully comply with this mandate," Smith said. "The vaccine or test start date is Sept. 5 and we plan to start SHIELD that week as well."
At Homewood-Flossmoor High School, about 94% of staff is vaccinated, said Jodi Bryant, director of public relations. She said the administration will continue to work with staff in accordance with the governor's directive and Illinois State Board of Education and Illinois Department of Public Health guidelines.
Information was not available from Prairie State College on its steps to meet the governor's directive.
Reactions from several local parents who have been vocal in their concerns about the safety of in-person learning suggest the school staff vaccination order is welcome but issues still remain.
"We are pleased that the mandate might bring the vaccination rates in schools up," Erika Schaefer said. "However, there will still be unvaccinated teachers and staff who use religious or medical exemptions, and frankly, all students under 12 are still unvaccinated. The schools will still present a hazardous environment for COVID spread, and we continue to advocate loudly for a remote option."
Schaefer disputes the districts' interpretation of ISBE rules as requiring in-person learning and said district could offer a remote option.
Another local parent, Ro'Shunda Russell, also pledged to continue advocating for a remote learning option.
"Our most vulnerable children are still at risk and this is not resolved," she said. "We need remote learning options for all parents. Instead, our district refuses to implement remote options. I demand remote to ensure the safety of our most vulnerable."
Nikki LaGrone agreed the vaccine mandate for staff was a good step, but she, too, believes it is not enough.
"Our unvaccinated children are not completely safe until they can, be vaccinated," she said.
Anyone in the school or healthcare groups named in the announcement who is unable or unwilling to receive the vaccine will be required to get tested for COVID-19 at least once per week, Pritzker said, although state health and education agencies could require more frequent testing in situations where there is an outbreak.
“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. “We are running out of time as our hospitals run out of beds."
Pritzker clarified that the reference to hospital beds is really a reference to staff levels. If there aren't enough healthcare workers, patients can't receive care. That applies not only to COVID-19 patients but to people suffering from other illnesses or injuries, he said.
The most dire situation is in Region 5 in southern Illinois, where the vaccination rate is 44% and about 3% of intensive care unit beds are available. Region 10, which includes surburban Cook County, has 120 beds available of 695, according to the IDPH website.
Illinois Department of Public Health Director Ngozi Ezike said even though many schools have been in session for only a couple of weeks, some already are experiencing outbreaks.
Since Aug. 1, local health departments across the state have reported 27 outbreaks at schools and hundreds of schools are being monitored for potential COVID-19 exposures.
On Aug. 4, Pritzker announced a requirement that all teachers and students wear masks in schools. Children under age 12 are not yet eligible to be vaccinated.
“The vast majority of hospitalizations, as well as cases and deaths, are among those who are unvaccinated," Ezike said. "We have safe, proven, and effective tools to turn the tide and end this pandemic. But until more people are vaccinated, masks are the order of the day and will help us slow the spread of the virus.”
All Illinois residents over the age of 12 are eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine at no cost and proof of immigration status is not required to receive the vaccine.
Prairie State College will be the site for COVID-19 vaccinations from noon to 4:30 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 30, at its main campus, 202 S. Halsted St. in Chicago Heights.
Vaccinations are free regardless of insurance or immigration status. The pop-up site will offer Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines for individuals 12 years of age and older. Those 17 and younger must be accompanied by a parent or guardian. Walk-ins are welcome. Appointments are not required.
To find a vaccination center, go to vaccines.gov.
Marilyn Thomas and Bill Jones contributed to this story