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Masks recommended for everyone at Illinois universities, community colleges

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - State leaders have asked college students to mask up this year, regardless of their vaccination status. Although, this is not a mask mandate like Gov. JB Pritzker's announcement for P-12 schools Wednesday.

The Illinois Board of Higher Education and Community College Board just released new public health guidance for students. They now recommend masks for all students, teachers, and staff inside college buildings in regions with substantial or high transmission of COVID-19. But, keep in mind, almost every county in Illinois falls into one of those categories due to the rapid spread of the Delta variant.

The boards previously put out guidance that strongly encouraged public and private universities to require COVID-19 vaccinations. However, Republican lawmakers mentioned many students may have contracted the virus last year and already developed "natural immunity."

Rep. Deanne Mazzochi (R-Elmhurst) argued there's no benefit for those students to get vaccinated if they still have to wear masks like everyone else. However, IBHE Executive Director Ginger Ostro quickly noted that's not the case. Ostro explained their guidance follows information from CDC and IDPH experts.

"Focusing on vaccination is a primary way to minimize transmission," Ostro said. "And risk of people getting sick is the underlying reason to have vaccination."

Helping students stay safe

The state also encouraged universities to provide information about vaccines to anyone who remains hesitant about the shot. Students can take their face coverings off when they're outside. But, the state recommends they wear masks in crowded outdoor spaces like campus quads. Several university officials stressed they'll continue to follow the science and pivot to different guidelines when needed.

Students at schools in the University of Illinois System must get COVID-19 vaccinations before returning to campus. Although, there are plans in place for those who can't get the shot due to medical or personal reasons.

"For those individuals, testing through Shield's saliva-based test and trace program, developed at Urbana Champaign, will continue to be required," said Dr. Anijit Ghosh.

Almost every college plans on offering robust testing and opportunities for online classes for those who may not want to return to large lecture halls. The Illinois Department of Public Health is also strongly encouraging young people to get vaccinated before heading back to college because many under 30 are contracting the Delta variant.

State officials said they will constantly review plans to ensure students are healthy and safe on campus this year.

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Mike Miletich

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