Gov. J.B. Pritzker has issued a new mandate requiring all Illinois public school students to wear masks when they return to school later this month, taking away the authority of school districts to make their own decisions based on local COVID conditions. The governor continues to act unilaterally, even though the state’s ability to manage COVID has improved dramatically in recent months.
The mandate goes further than the CDC’s most recent guidelines, which only recommend mask wearing. “Far too few school districts have chosen to follow the federal CDC prescriptions for keeping students and staff safe,” the governor said. Pritzker said that he has legal authority to enforce the mask mandate.
The governor’s mandate is a dramatic step back for students who, for more than a year, have suffered disproportionate harm from the restrictions imposed because of COVID. Since the virus emerged in March 2020, any concerns over the mental health of more than 2 million children were subordinated to the overall fear of the virus. The damage done by school shutdowns – anxiety, depression and even suicide – have been harsh, especially considering the near-zero risk COVID poses to students and the limited risk students pose to others in school settings.
The state’s improved COVID status simply doesn’t warrant a mask mandate for kids, and continued masking only serves as a constant reminder to students of the harm they’ve experienced. Illinois students need a return to normalcy, and Gov. Pritzker has just single-handedly taken that away.
The situation in schools today has entirely changed from last year. While the Delta variant is a hurdle – more on the variant below – the reality is that deaths, hospitalizations and even cases are still 80 percent or more off of the pandemic’s peak. A big reason for that is the availability of vaccines for those that want them – more than 90 percent of the elderly and a majority of adults in Illinois have had at least one shot. Teachers are overwhelmingly vaccinated, a result of being prioritized by the state early on in the vaccination roll out. Hospitals, too, are better prepared and treatment has markedly improved since last year.
The overall collapse in the severity of the crisis means school districts should return to making student mental health a top priority – and that includes making mask-wearing optional, not mandated as Pritzker demands.
The state’s situation is dramatically different from where it was pre-vaccine.
1. All of COVID’s key metrics have collapsed dramatically compared to their pre-vaccine peaks. Daily cases are down 80 percent compared to their November 2020 peak. Hospitalizations are down 84 percent. Most importantly, average daily COVID deaths are down to about ten a day, 95 percent lower than their peak in December of last year. Deaths have yet to show any real reaction to the increase in cases due to the Delta variant.
2. Hospitals still have considerable capacity to deal with any increase in patients. That hospitals might get overwhelmed was a legitimate concern early on in the pandemic. But the last year and a half has shown Illinois’ healthcare system has more than enough capacity to handle any increase in COVID patients.
About a quarter of Illinois’ hospital beds are currently empty. That’s about 8,400 beds – more than the maximum 6,200 COVID patients that were hospitalized during the peak of the pandemic. Ditto for ICU beds, where 23 percent of the capacity is available (over 2,000 ICU beds are currently being used by non-COVID patients).
3. A vast majority of Illinois most-vulnerable populations, and a majority of adults, have been vaccinated. Vaccines weren’t even considered a possibility when school started last year. Today, almost 92 percent of Illinoisans aged 65 or older have received at least one vaccination jab along with 75 percent of everyone over the age of 18.
The Delta variant hasn’t stopped vaccinations from working
The Delta variant deserves attention given it’s the cause of the recent jump in COVID cases in Illinois and across the nation. The fact that the strain is more infectious is concerning, but the majority of the evidence so far has shown Delta to be no more dangerous than its predecessors – especially to the vaccinated. From the WSJ editorial board:
The CDC estimates there are about 35,000 symptomatic infections among 162 million vaccinated Americans a week. As cases have increased nationwide, so have breakthrough infections. This is to be expected. But recent studies show that vaccines are still 88% protective against symptomatic illness and 96% against hospitalization and death.
The good news is that in Illinois, “breakthrough” cases remain rare with just 714 hospitalizations reported so far. Illinois IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said in todays’ press conference that of the 6 million vaccinated in Illinois, there have been 180 breakthrough deaths, or just 0.003 percent of the total. She recently called breakthrough cases a “unicorn.” And Gov. Pritzker reiterated the safety of vaccines: “…the likelihood of a vaccinated person testing positive for COVID-19 remains extremely low and most importantly, these vaccines are doing what they are designed to do, essentially to eliminate the risk of hospitalization and death.”
What then is the point of mandating schoolchildren to wear masks?
It can’t be to protect kids themselves from the virus. Vaccinated or not, CDC data shows the survival rate for those age 19 and under at 99.997%. Children are more likely to die of cancer, homicide, heart disease, accidents or suicide than from COVID, as Wirepoints has shown previously.
And it can’t be to protect the vaccinated adult population. Government officials remain adamant that the vaccines work in protecting against serious illness and death. Pritzker and Ezike during their recent press conference reiterated that vaccines “are the best tool” against COVID.
That leaves unvaccinated adults – the vast majority who are unvaccinated by choice. It makes no sense to inflict masks on schoolchildren to protect a segment of the population who have taken on that risk by choice.
Children have suffered greatly over the past year
Children have suffered disproportionately not from COVID itself, but from the restrictions related to COVID since the beginning of the pandemic. In fact, the data has shown almost from the very beginning that the risks of COVID are dwarfed by the long-term emotional, physical and developmental harms that restrictions have imposed on all children.
Much has already been written about the damage done over the past year and a half due to remote learning and social distancing: the crippling impact of isolation, increased anxiety, the loss of critical development time, the physical harm of less exercise, the increased risk of teen suicide, unreported child abuse, and more. Many of those issues have coalesced into a crisis for youth, leading, for example, to some of the many tragic examples below:
Now with this latest mask mandate we’re risking a permanent disruption of development for a generation of children. Younger kids – again, those least likely to contract or spread COVID – have had the development of key social and communication skills disrupted by mask-wearing. From the WSJ:
“…the evidence is overwhelming that masking can harm children’s developmental progress. Look at the World Health Organization’s guidance document on child masking, which says that up to age 5, masking children may harm the achievement of childhood developmental milestones. For children between 6 and 11, the same document says that mask guidance should consider the “potential impact of mask-wearing on learning and psychosocial development.”
It is up to parents and officials to ensure that more unnecessary harm isn’t inflicted on students in the name of “an abundance of caution.”
The mandate goes too far
Unfortunately, most, if not all, school districts are likely to go along with the Governor and Board of Education’s new mask mandate. “ISBE has the ability to remove recognition status for a school if it is not following the mandates,” the governor warned in the masking press conference.
But officials that are positive about their students’ vaccination status and the overall health of their communities should be confident in challenging the state’s overbroad and overreaching restrictions.
Schools should put the mental wellness of students first by making mask-wearing optional. After a year of incalculable harm, we owe it to our kids to return their classrooms to normal.
Masks are a constant reminder to students of the harm they’ve experienced. A return to normalcy is the antidote.
Read more about the COVID-19 pandemic in Illinois: