By Rick Pearson Chicago Tribune

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker is expected to double down Thursday on his efforts to deal with a resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic’s delta variant as schools reopen by requiring all educators from kindergarten through college to be vaccinated.

Additionally, Pritzker plans to require a statewide mandate of masking of people age 2 and above in indoor locations, according to two sources familiar with the governor’s actions, as the variant has led to increasing hospitalizations among younger people and the unvaccinated, along with increasing reports of “breakthrough cases” among those who are vaccinated. ADVERTISEMENT

The Democratic governor’s announcement is expected to come days after he said he had no plans to expand a vaccine mandate beyond state and private workers in congregate settings, such as nursing homes, prisons and veterans’ homes. His comments followed the federal Food and Drug Administration’s full use approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Monday, after it had previously received FDA emergency authorization during the pandemic.

The Pfizer full-use authorization is for people age 16 and above, meaning the vast majority of grade school students are not cleared for vaccination. The FDA has not yet granted full use authorization for the other two vaccines from Moderna and Johnson & Johnson.

With schools gearing up for more in-person learning, Pritzker earlier this month had ordered a masking mandate for students, faculty and staff in early childhood learning centers and elementary and high schools and said schools and districts that did not comply faced sanctions, including the possible loss of state funding and participation in Illinois High School Association athletics.

The issue of vaccine mandates has been a controversial one involving government employees. Pritzker’s requirement for workers in congregate settings has been challenged by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31, the state’s largest employee union. The union, which has supported vaccination, has said the issue is a matter of collective bargaining. Pritzker said his administration is in negotiations with AFSCME on the issue. ADVERTISEMENT

Officials for the state’s largest public teachers’ unions — the Illinois Education Association, which represents primarily suburban school districts, and the Illinois Federation of Teachers, whose ranks include the Chicago Teachers Union — are expected to release a joint statement that embraces Pritzker’s new mandate.

On Tuesday, Pritzker said he was serious about sanctioning school districts that defied his masking mandate, citing schools that have closed in neighboring states because of COVID-19 outbreaks.

“I realize that there are people who like to show up and shout at local school boards, at the local school board members. But the reality is that the vast majority of people in Illinois want to make sure that the children of Illinois, their parents, their communities are safe. And having a mask mandate operative in schools will help to do that,” he said.

On Wednesday, he dismissed a conservative radio commentator who has regularly opposed Pritzker’s mitigation efforts, including at public rallies. After the commentator questioned the efficacy of masking, Pritzker contended she had a political agenda and spread misinformation and said, “We now need to protect our children, we need to protect the people in our communities, parents, grandparents, teachers.”

Pritzker’s comment came as Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who previously required CPS employees to be vaccinated or provide proof of a valid reason not to take the shot, expanded her vaccine mandate to include all city workers. Chicago Federation of Police head John Catanzara compared the mandate to “Nazi” Germany. The Chicago Federation of Labor, while supportive of vaccines, said it supported other efforts in lieu of a vaccine mandate.

Prior to his anticipated call for a vaccine mandate of school employees, Pritzker’s school masking mandate has created some tensions in suburban and Downstate districts, including some private schools who have argued it runs against the state’s tradition of local control of schools.

A Downstate attorney who has been unsuccessful in previous challenges to Pritzker’s emergency mitigation orders had been seeking support from school districts and parents to launch another lawsuit, encouraged by former state Rep. Jeanne Ives of Wheaton, who lost a bid for the GOP nomination for governor in 2018 and an effort for Congress in the west and north suburban 6th District a year ago.

Several institutions of higher education have already imposed a vaccination mandate for students, faculty and staff, including the University of Illinois system. The U. of I., which developed the Shield Illinois saliva-based test for COVID-19, is being used in 1,200 grade and elementary schools in the state.

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