On Friday, Gov. JB Pritzker issued an executive order that extends the initial COVID-19 vaccine mandate deadline for school personnel.
Under the order, all personnel in all schools must be fully vaccinated or submit weekly test results to the school. The requirement was originally set to be effective this past Sunday, but with the introduction of COVID-19 Executive Order No. 88, the deadline has been pushed back by two weeks.
Now, all school personnel must submit proof they received their initial dose (or their first and final dose if they chose the Johnson & Johnson option) to their school by Sept. 19, and they must receive their second dose, if applicable, within 30 days of their first dose.
Proof of the second dose is also required.
Those who are not fully vaccinated, which the order said is achieved two weeks after one’s final dose, will have to submit COVID testing results to the school at least once a week. Those who do not get vaccinated, either due to personal choice or an exemption, will have to adhere to this testing requirement.
The new order defines “school personnel” as “any person who (1) is employed by, volunteers for, or is contracted to provide services for a school or school district serving students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, or who is employed by an entity that is contracted to provide services to a school, school district, or students of a school, and (2) is in close contact (fewer than six feet) with students of the school or other school personnel for more than 15 minutes at least once a week on a regular basis as determined by the school.”
Kelton Davis, Regional Superintendent of Schools for Monroe and Randolph counties, said he hopes to have the SHIELD Illinois testing program in area schools by Sept. 19.
While some area districts, such as Waterloo, originally applied for the SHIELD testing program as individual districts, transitioning to apply through the Regional Office of Education helped expedite the process.
“It appears we’re going to be able to start in some of our schools as early as the 13th, so by the 19th it is our goal to have this test available for both staff and students, and that is the SHIELD test which is a saliva-based test,” Davis said.
As the Republic-Times previously reported, having the SHIELD test in schools would help facilitate the test-to-stay option for students who would have been quarantined due to being close contacts. Once the testing is available in schools, students have the option to submit to testing on a strictly volunteer basis.
Davis explained that school personnel who are not fully vaccinated may also choose to partake in the on-site testing, but may also satisfy the order’s testing requirement by submitting tests from elsewhere.
However, he warned the Illinois Department of Public Health said last week that the BinaxNOW at-home self test will not be accepted.
As of press time, school districts will be in charge of ensuring their personnel are either vaccinated or submitting weekly test results, Davis said. Schools are still waiting for guidance from IDPH and the Illinois State Board of Education on how to best enforce the order.
Davis said the schools he oversees will be complying with the executive order. He said non-compliance could result in the same consequences schools not adhering to Pritzker’s earlier mask mandate were threatened with, including having state funding pulled and not being able to compete in athletic conferences.
Similar to this school year’s earlier masking discussions, schools will also face liability concerns if they do not comply with the vaccine/testing requirement, Davis said.
“Schools are held liable, and our insurance companies have said that too,” Davis said. “If you’re not following the CDC guidance, IDPH and ISBE, you’re not going to be covered by insurance for a lawsuit. It doesn’t matter whether they make rules or not, by our schools being liable, it’s too risky (to not comply).”
However, Davis and local superintendents worry COVID-19 Executive Order No. 88 could have some far-reaching implications, not all of which are positive.
“This is a big statement, but there is a significant potential that our schools, because of the executive orders, are going to have to go to remote learning, which is the opposite effect that the governor, I’m sure, wants to have happen,” Davis said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s an unintended consequence, it’s still the consequence.”
Davis is referring to the potential loss of employees who refuse to adhere to the vaccine requirement or submit test results.
“Within the first hour of notifying our substitute teachers, we had three subs immediately come off of our list. I have heard of a school north of us – not in my region – (where) 12 percent of its staff is going to refuse testing.”
With the nationwide shortage of bus drivers, local schools also face mounting anxiety that drivers will not comply with the governor’s new order.
“The busses are pretty full, and I have all of my routes filled. If I lose one bus driver, where do I get (another) driver?” Columbia Superintendent Chris Grode said.
Waterloo Superintendent Brian Charron said he too is very concerned about the new order heightening an already scarce labor force in multiple areas of the district’s functioning.
He said he hopes the relatively non-invasive nature of the SHIELD test, as well as the rapid test supplied with it, will quell some potential resistance.
“I hope that people realize that this is a more simple nasal swab at the end of your nose, which shouldn’t be uncomfortable at all, or possibly a spit-type test where you’d be spitting into a little tube and then it’s sent off for 24-hour test results. I’m hoping that with this option being available to our employees right away that less people will object to this,” Charron said.
As Davis said, the ROE is expecting these tests to be available to local schools by Sept. 19.