SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — New health guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control last Friday has local school boards adjusting their plans for the new school year as students prepare to return in the fall.
The CDC says vaccinated students and staff will not need to wear a mask, but adds, “Masks should be worn indoors by all individuals (age 2 and older) who are not fully vaccinated.”
The Food and Drug Administration has not yet cleared any of the available vaccines for children under 12. Data from the Illinois Department of Public Health shows nearly half of the state’s entire population is fully vaccinated, and 64% of people 12 and over have had at least one shot.
Some Republican state lawmakers who have resisted most of the state’s Coronavirus restrictions are pushing back against the public health recommendations for unvaccinated people to wear a mask indoors.
“They feel like their kids are going to be discriminated against because they’re not vaccinated,” state representative Dan Caulkins (R-Decatur) said.
“Don’t force these kids in schools to wear a mask,” Caulkins said. “They have been together all summer. They’ve been playing sports together, they’ve been hanging out at birthday parties, they’ve been socializing, they’ve been going to people’s back yards, playing ball. And now they’re going to have to turn around in that same group and wear a mask.”
However, the new CDC guidance does not include a mandate. In fact, it appears to leave room for local school districts to opt out of the mask rules.
The CDC says it “continues to recommend masking and physical distancing as key prevention strategies. However, if school administrators decide to remove any of the prevention strategies for their school based on local conditions, they should remove them one at a time and monitor closely.”
The updated guidelines only use the word “require” in specific instances in areas with high rates of infection or low rates of vaccination.
“A school in a community with substantial or high transmission, with a low teacher, staff, or student vaccination rate, and without a screening testing program should continue to require masks for people who are not fully vaccinated,” the CDC says.
Caulkins and state senator Darren Bailey (R-Louisville) have written letters to the Pritzker administration challenging the state’s power to enforce a statewide mask mandate in recent weeks. Both letters were issued prior to the release of the CDC’s new recommendations.
“They don’t have the power to enforce,” Caulkins said. “I think what we’re seeing is recommendations.”
“He’s literally asking for a policy that is already in place and has been since Friday,” Pritzker spokesperson Jordan Abudayyeh said in an email.
The Governor’s office said while schools are “supposed to follow the CDC guidance,” “school boards run their school districts,” and the new recommendations are “not a mask mandate.”
In a May 26th letter written prior to the new CDC rules, the Illinois State Board of Education’s Education Officer Dr. Ernesto Matias wrote to the superintendent of the Red Hill school district in rural Bridgeport, Illinois, that “universal masking…is still a mandate,” and, “Mask wearing is not optional.”
Bailey, who is running in the Republican gubernatorial primary for a chance to challenge Pritzker next fall, challenged the State Board of Education’s legal power to penalize school districts that don’t comply.
The Illinois House approved a measure that would expand state powers to enforce emergency public health guidance in public and private schools, but it stalled in the Senate.
The State Board of Education says it does have legal authority to revoke certification or state “recognition” from districts that put children in harm’s way, although the Governor’s office acknowledged that would be a “dramatic step.”
“The Illinois State Board of Education has regulatory authority to reduce the recognition status of any school district exhibiting ‘deficiencies that present a health hazard or a danger to students or staff,'” spokesperson Jackie Matthews said in an email.
“My guess is the school board is not going to go against the CDC, because that opens them up to liability,” Abudayyeh said.
Caulkins’ objections over masks and vaccines went beyond mere protest of state power, and crossed over into questioning their public health value.
“I don’t think kids should be given a vaccine until we actually know what the long term effects are going to be,” he said, citing a new disclaimer added to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The FDA has not granted Johnson & Johnson vaccine approval for people under 18.
In his letter to Pritzker, Caulkins cited a study that measured how much carbon dioxide is caught in a face covering. The author suggested the elevated carbon dioxide levels near the nose and mouth could carry unspecified “adverse effects,” though other medical experts who reviewed the study found its measurement devices, methods, and analysis severely lacking. For example, the study measured the air trapped inside the mask, not the other air around it, only measured for a fraction of the time it takes to inhale, and did not measure actual blood-oxygen levels.
“The buildup of carbon monoxide (sic) has been detected in children’s masks which can lead to serious health issues,” Caulkins wrote, mistaking the air we exhale with a toxic flammable gas.
Other medical experts who reviewed the study said that even if children were breathing in that higher rate of carbon dioxide, the “elevated levels” cited in the study were so low, they were “not dangerous.”
“I don’t think the CDC is out here trying to torture children and wear a mask,” Abudayyeh said in a phone call.
A spokeswoman for Governor J.B. Pritzker’s office said on Monday that the new CDC recommendations that unvaccinated people should still wear a mask in classrooms is “not a mask mandate.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new relaxed guidelines on wearing masks in classrooms last Friday. Now school districts are weighing how they should address the issue. The Illinois State Board of Education says it has “fully adopted” the CDC recommendations.