NORMAL — Students and employees at Bloomington-Normal colleges say Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s new mask and vaccine mandates announced Thursday might not change how life looks on campus, but they do bring added peace of mind as the fall semester begins.
The new mandates require faculty, staff and students at all colleges and universities in the state to be vaccinated by Sept. 5. If they do not get the vaccine, by choice or for medical or religious reasons, they will need to be tested weekly for COVID-19. The governor did specify that the Sept. 5 deadline is for the first dose, for those opting for a two-shot series. Pritzker has also called for masks be worn in all indoor places, effective Monday.
Illinois State University senior Keaton Eckstein, who is studying finance and risk management insurance, said he is glad students are back on campus and that steps are being taken to keep everyone healthy. He has been watching news reports about rising cases nationwide, including breakthrough cases among vaccinated people.
“Those statistics are worrying,” he said.
Paul Jones, also a senior finance and risk management insurance student at ISU, said the masks and other measures are well worth being back on campus, learning in classrooms and seeing friends in person. Anything to safely move away from Zoom seems like the right move, he said.
ISU senior Michelle Guerrier said the school, and now state, requirements make her feel safer being back on a full campus. She had occasionally been on campus last year for her job with TV10, and having everyone back on campus this fall had been more worrying for her.
How many are vaccinated?
ISU and Illinois Wesleyan University had already required students and staff to be vaccinated or be tested weekly. The universities and Heartland Community College have all been requiring masks indoors, even for vaccinated people.
ISU spokesman Eric Jome said the school plans to provide further information to campus soon, but that they do not anticipate needing to change the approach and policies now in place.
Guerrier, a journalism and business marketing major, said she likes that masks are required on campus. She feels safer wearing one and having other people around her wear one as well.
It's impossible to know who in a room is vaccinated, she said, so it seems to make more sense to have everyone wear a mask to be on the safe side. Like Eckstein, she is concerned by the spread of the more contagious delta variant of the coronavirus, and the potential for unvaccinated people to get sick.
In his press conference Thursday morning, Pritzker noted that the vast majority of Illinois cases, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID since January have been in unvaccinated people, but that breakthrough cases do happen. Under the new requirements, only unvaccinated individuals at higher education institutions will have to be tested regularly.
The weekly testing is a good idea, Guerrier said, but may not go far enough.
“I think the vaccinated should get tested, too,” she said, citing the potential for breakthrough cases, the large number of people students come into contact with, and the impossibility of knowing everyone's vaccination status. Anecdotal stories of delays in letting people know they were exposed to the virus also worry her.
Pritzker warned that more frequent testing might be required at specific locations if there are outbreaks.
The percentage of ISU community members who have submitted their vaccination status has been rising, Jome said. As of Wednesday, 84% of faculty and staff and 68% of students were vaccinated, including 78% of students who live on campus. That is an increase of 3% of employees and 7% of students since last week. Since Aug. 16, the first day of classes, 86 people have tested positive at campus testing locations, out of 5,947 tests given.
Illinois Wesleyan will require students to be vaccinated to register for classes next semester and going forward, following the full FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine on Monday.
“We will comply with the state vaccine mandate for employees and students,” spokesman John Twork said.
As of last week, of those who had submitted their status, 87% of IWU students and 95% of employees were vaccinated or planned to get vaccinated, Twork said.
“Beginning this spring, students will be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 for continued enrollment, unless they obtain a medical or religious exemption, consistent with our practice regarding other mandated vaccines,” he said.
Heartland has not, so far, required students or employees to submit their vaccination status. Spokesman Steve Fast said the school had already started working on the necessary tools to meet vaccine requirements, as administrators had thought such policies might be coming this fall. The mask requirement is already in place.
Administrators will be meeting this week to decide how implementation of the new mandates will work at HCC, Fast said. The school hopes to receive more guidance from the state on questions like how, if required, they will report information to the state, and what qualifies a person as a higher education student.
'We welcome it'
The Illinois Education Association and the Illinois Federation of Teachers, two statewide teachers unions, released a joint statement approving of the new requirements as safeguards for teachers and students. HCC’s faculty is organized through IFT, with the Heartland Faculty Association representing full-time faculty and the Heartland Adjunct Faculty Association representing part-time professors.
HFA President Cherie Rankin said the union hopes to see the college communicate clearly with students and employees about the changes, and to have a consistent approach to how those changes happen. The union also encouraged the college to use a centralized system for tracking vaccination status and testing, she said.
ISU, IWU and HCC have all been having on-campus vaccination clinics for campus community members. HCC and ISU additionally have on-campus SHIELD testing, which is a non-invasive saliva test developed through a University of Illinois nonprofit.
As students and employees have returned to campus for the fall, HCC has tried to keep everyone safe, Rankin said. However, she noted that the process has not been perfect.
“Mandating vaccination (or weekly testing if one chooses that option) would likely make us all feel that much safer, and we welcome it,” she said.