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McHenry County area schools react to vaccine mandate for school staff: ‘Everything that we can do to help us remain in school is awesome’

After the announcement by Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker that there will be a vaccine mandate for all school employees, some McHenry County area school officials said they hope this will be one more step in ensuring students stay in in-person schooling this year.

All preschool through high school employees in Illinois will need to have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by Sept. 5 or get tested at least weekly for the highly infectious virus, Pritzker announced Thursday morning.

The mandate also applies to higher education personnel and health care workers in hospitals, doctors’ offices, urgent care and nursing homes. For those that do not get vaccinated, additional testing may be required in certain situations, such as during an outbreak, Pritzker said.

After seeing some businesses and health care facilities require vaccines, and the city of the Chicago mandate vaccines for city employees, Fox River Grove Elementary School District 3 Superintendent Sandy Ozimek said she had a feeling a similar rule “might be coming our way.”

“[The mandate] won’t have a huge impact on us, because we already have such a high amount of teachers vaccinated,” Ozimek said. “It adds another layer of protection, and helps to boost the confidence of parents who are sending their students to school, as well as reducing the risk of having to quarantine.”

About 91% of the 400-student district staff is currently vaccinated, Ozimek told the Northwest Herald.

Not all schools in McHenry County have as high of a vaccination rate as Fox River Grove School District 3.

Crystal Lake Elementary School District 47 reported on its COVID-19 dashboard that its schools had anywhere from 20% to 43% of their staff vaccinated. The rates are based on the number of vaccination cards provided to the district voluntarily by staff.

Richard Bernotas Middle School reported the highest vaccination rate at 43%, while South Elementary School had the lowest at 20%.

An attempt to reach a District 47 spokeswoman Thursday was not immediately successful.

Some Fox River Grove District 3 staff last year had to quarantine, which may have helped them see the benefits in getting the vaccine, Ozimek said. As for the relatively small number of people who haven’t gotten vaccinated, she said it is hard to say whether it will be a challenge to get them inoculated.

“I think we might have some that would just have to test once a week and others that may change their mind,” she said.

Angela Bove, president of the McHenry School Transportation Association Local 23 union that serves the city of McHenry Elementary School District 15 system, said she is aware of multiple workers, including bus drivers, in her union who are unvaccinated. She said she thinks some of them will opt for the weekly testing option instead of shots.

“I do understand why [Pritzker] is mandating it,” said Bove, who is vaccinated. “I wake up every day hoping that it will turn out to be a good day and nobody will end up getting sick, whether it be the kids or any of the staff involved. The drivers, as long as they have the option of the testing, then it gives them still a choice. To me, that’s the only fair way of doing it.”

She is unsure whether the mandate will lead some of her colleagues to look for other jobs where shots or tests are not necessary.

If some do leave, Bove said, it would put the district transportation staff in an even more difficult situation, as the union is already down about a dozen drivers from pre-pandemic levels.

Bus routes this fall are already so full that three students to a seat is standard on most buses, leading to more students needing to quarantines when a COVID-19 positive case occurs.

McHenry High School District 156 officials are still interpreting Pritzker’s order and plan to detail how they will handle the mandate for its staff to be vaccinated or frequently tested for the virus soon.

“At this point, we’re still analyzing the new requirements from the state as it pertains to vaccination of the staff,” District 156 Superintendent Ryan McTague said through spokeswoman Amy Maciaszek.

In a joint statement Thursday, Illinois Education Association President President Kathi Griffin and Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery applauded the governor’s decision.

“The vaccine mandate will help provide the greatest possible level of safety for those who learn and work in our schools, colleges, and institutions, especially as part of a layered approach that includes face masks, physical distancing, regular handwashing, adequate building ventilation, and consistent COVID testing of students, teachers, faculty, and staff,” they said in the statement. “Now that these same mitigation factors will apply to higher education institutions, it will help our state keep our young adults and those who teach and work with them, safe and healthy.”

Hospitalization and death are much more common among the unvaccinated than the vaccinated, Pritzker emphasized during his announcement Thursday.

”This is a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” Pritzker said. “These are preventable deaths, and beyond the tragedy of losing lives for no reason, this also means inflicting serious damage on communities.”

He pointed to monthly hospital admission data that showed those 18 to 39 years old are 20 times more likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19 if they’re unvaccinated versus vaccinated.

The rate is 20.2 hospital admissions per 100,000 for the unvaccinated in that age group versus one per 100,000.

The difference is even more pronounced for those 40 to 64 years old: 65.7 per 100,000 for the unvaccinated versus 2.5 per 100,000 for the vaccinated, according to his presentation, which cited monthly COVID-10 admission data for July.

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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