Pritzker warns parents to expect a school year unlike any other; admits feeling ‘challenged’ amid nationwide COVID-19 surge, Illinois uptick

Gov. J.B. Pritzker warned parents Thursday to prepare for a semester unlike “any other” as school districts grapple with the need to require masks, social distancing and remote learning options to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.

Pritzker also said his confidence level in leading the state through the pandemic was high after case numbers started dipping in May, but acknowledged he now feels “challenged” due to nationwide spikes and an uptick in Illinois.

The governor, whose comments came during unrelated news conferences in Rockford, again appealed to bar and restaurant owners to stick to 25% capacity limits on indoor serving or risk an outbreak that could lead to the reimposition of closure orders.

Pritzker said while school districts will develop their own reopening plans, and should get parental input, there would be no “compromise on the question of masks and distance. That is the No. 1 thing that slows and even stops the spread of COVID-19. It’s also — without masks, without distance — the No. 1 thing that spreads it.”

“If those rules are followed and if we can maintain and push down the numbers as we watch them in Illinois, then I would say that there can be in-person learning. And again, not for everybody,” he said, specifically pointing to children and families with immunocompromised systems.

“So we have to be very, very careful. This is not going to be a school semester like any other that I’m aware of. Just be prepared for that fact. It’s just really going to be that way, no matter what. Even if we keep our numbers down, this virus has not gone away,” he said.

Pritzker announced school reopening guidelines on June 23, giving deference to local school districts. But questions about oversight remained, and the Illinois State Board of Education acknowledged it would not review individual district plans.

At the time, Pritzker sought to downplay the lack of state oversight, saying, “Every superintendent, every teacher, every person that works in the school, paraprofessionals, not to mention the students and families, all have the same interest — which is to keep these children and the people who work there safe.”

The state guidance to bring students back into classrooms calls for face coverings and suggests social distancing “as much as possible.” It also limits gatherings to under 50, requests increased schoolwide cleaning and disinfecting, and symptom screening and temperature checks for people entering schools.

The state’s major teachers unions questioned the adequacy of the guidelines with Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery saying they appeared more “aspirational” than grounded in “reality” with no certification that safety rules would be implemented and practiced.

But later Thursday, Pritzker’s administration filed suit in Sangamon County Circuit Court in Springfield against a school district in downstate Hutsonville on the Illinois-Indiana border, and Christian academies in Yorkville and Channahon who notified state education and health officials at the end of June and early July that they were not obligated to follow the guidelines and would not impose face mask requirements.

The schools are represented by Thomas DeVore, an attorney from downstate Greenville, who has led legal fights against Pritzker’s executive emergency orders contending they are an unconstitutional overreach of his powers.

DeVore made similar arguments on behalf of the schools and said they were declining to follow the guidance for schools. On behalf of the Hutsonville district, DeVore wrote: “With all due respect to your recommendations, my client is inclined to advise your agencies they are reasonably certain such additional protocols, if any, will not include a mandate that staff, parents or children be required to wear any type face coverings.”

But attorneys for Pritzker, the Illinois Department of Public Health and the State Board of Education said in the suit that based on “constitutional and statutory authority, the state has the right to the statewide unified implementation and enforcement of the governor’s executive orders and the guidance (to schools). The state also has a vital interest in regulating the response to COVID-19 and setting minimum public health standards.”

The suit said the benefits of a court injunction requiring the schools to comply “outweigh any possible injury” they would suffer by not adhering to the public health guidelines and risking spread of the coronavirus.

The issue of school opening has become a political one with President Donald Trump insisting on a return to full time in-person instruction and warning of the withholding of federal funding for districts that do not comply.

At Thursday’s White House briefing, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Trump wants schools to open, “and when he says open, he means open and full, kids being able to attend each and every day at their school. The science should not stand in the way of this.”

Pritzker on Thursday said school districts must have options to provide for remote learning, not just for at-risk students and families, but also in case “things get worse.”

Remote learning, he acknowledged, was “not nearly as good as in-person learning, there’s no doubt,” but said districts must have “hybrid opportunities” due to “this very uncertain world of novel coronavirus.”

Pritzker acknowledged that as the state headed toward its pandemic peak this spring, with rising cases, hospitalizations and deaths, “my confidence level was low about everything.”

“As we came down the other side of that peak, my confidence level raised,” he said. “Now that we have a massive uptick in cases all across the country, my confidence level is challenged.

“And then I look at the state of Illinois, and although we’ve had a mild uptick, it’s one that I watch every day because anybody that knows anything about epidemics knows that when you have a mild uptick, there’s an indicator you’re heading in the wrong direction and it may multiply. So we want to make sure we get a handle on that,” he said.

Illinois has seen its rolling seven-day average of positive testing increase to 3.1% from as low as 2% last month. The average number of positive cases has increased from 622 a day three weeks ago to 1,039 a day this week, through Wednesday, based on statistics from Johns Hopkins University.

The state on Tuesday announced 1,257 new known cases of the coronavirus in Illinois, along with 25 deaths. That brings the total number of known cases since the pandemic began to 157,950, and the death toll to 7,251.

Pritzker called on bar and restaurant owners to be “extra careful and vigilant” in following public health guidelines and capacity limits to avoid the potential for creating outbreaks that could lead to business shutdowns.

“I realize there’s an incentive, you know, to have more and more people. That’s been historically your incentive. ‘Let’s have more people come to the restaurant or bar.’ But right now, if that happens and there are outbreaks, you’ll end up getting shut down, and you may end up shutting down all the bars or restaurants,” he said.


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