Pritzker defends vaccine and testing policy for educators during visit from U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona

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A behemoth purple tour bus carrying U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona rolled into suburban Chicago Tuesday morning promoting a not-so-subtle message: Students across the U.S. are back in the classroom this fall, and that’s reason to celebrate.

But Cardona and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s positive messages to teachers and students at Walter R. Sundling Junior High School in Palatine were replaced with a sobering dose of COVID-19 reality during an afternoon visit to Access Hawthorne Family Health Center in Cicero.

With Cardona and U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy at his side, Pritzker denied that allowing COVID-19 testing as an alternative to his vaccination mandate for educators, health care workers and employees in congregate settings provided a “loophole” for people who won’t get vaccinated.

“The testing regimen is there in order to make sure that they’re not entering the institution where they work and spreading COVID-19,” Pritzker said.

“This is not a loophole. You know there are people who are genuinely still afraid to get vaccinated for whatever reason. They need to be educated about the vaccine,” he said. “And so, we’re giving them a moment. We’re requiring that, but we’re also saying that, you know, if you’re not able to get vaccinated right now, you can get tested.”

Murthy said that people who have not gotten vaccinated should consider not only those children who are not old enough for the vaccine but also what he called “extraordinarily high” burnout rates among health care workers.

“If you’re not just willing to do for yourself just remember our health care workers depend on you, our kids depend on you being vaccinated, and all of us as a country depend on more people getting vaccinated to get through this pandemic,” he said.

Cardona’s visit Tuesday to the Chicago area was the latest stop on a “return to school road trip” across the Midwest this month aimed at showcasing students and communities safely returning to in-person learning.

Cardona acknowledged during the Cicero stop that remote learning during the pandemic resulted in losses in student achievement and said helping to make up for lost in-person learning opportunities was as important as focusing on a safe reopening of schools.

Federal relief funding, Cardona said, has provided schools across the country with $130 billion, in part to assist with “the academic acceleration that’s needed to catch up, meaning smaller class sizes, additional school social workers, school counselors to help parents and students navigate to return to school.”

“The resources are there. The will is there. We do have to focus on those students. They have suffered enough,” he said. “We have to make sure that our schools are welcoming environments that address not only their academic needs, but their social emotional needs as well.”

During his visit to Sundling school earlier in the day, Cardona acknowledged the lingering COVID-19 hardships facing teachers and students this fall, from quarantines to stringent virus mitigation strategies. He said Sundling serves as a model of how schools across the U.S. can remain open by making safety a top priority.

He also praised the school, which is part of District 15, for being among 18 Illinois schools recently named 2021 National Blue Ribbon Schools, an achievement he said was a “major, major honor” akin to winning the Oscars.

“I hope you keep this feeling of optimism,” said Cardona, who urged students to get vaccinated and remain vigilant about following Pritzker’s school mask mandate.

Pritzker — who has faced criticism from some parents, who view the school mask mandate and promotion of vaccines as infringing on their personal liberties — applauded the Sundling community for reflecting “empathy” and “eroding racial achievement gaps.”

Cardona was also expected to visit Chicago State University on Tuesday for a tour and roundtable discussion with Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot on the future of predominantly Black institutions and equity in education.

kcullotta@chicagotribune.com

rap30@aol.com

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