Chicago Public Schools will go mask optional on March 14

Facing a lawsuit, CPS announced plans to lift its mask mandate. CPS is one of the few remaining districts in Illinois to require masks.

WBEZ
Teachers and Faculty at McPherson Elementary School on the North Side students on the first day back of in-person learning for preschoolers on Jan. 11, 2021. CPS students have been wearing masks in school for well over a year. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
WBEZ
Teachers and Faculty at McPherson Elementary School on the North Side students on the first day back of in-person learning for preschoolers on Jan. 11, 2021. CPS students have been wearing masks in school for well over a year. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Chicago Public Schools will go mask optional on March 14

Facing a lawsuit, CPS announced plans to lift its mask mandate. CPS is one of the few remaining districts in Illinois to require masks.

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Chicago Public Schools on Monday said it will go mask optional starting on March 14 — but first it will face a fight with the Chicago Teachers Union. Just hours after the school district announced it was lifting its mask mandate, the union said it was filing an unfair labor practice complaint against the district, demanding that it bargain over this decision.

Also Monday, the lawyer representing a group of CPS parents that filed a request for a temporary restraining order to stop the mask mandate said he was dropping that request. Chicago is one of the last school districts in the state to require masks.

The school district said it will still encourage mask wearing in schools, especially in schools where vaccination rates are low. Recent data shows that vaccination rates in 50 schools are 10% or less, according to a WBEZ analysis of data from Feb. 22.

But the school district says vaccination rates among students are rising and public health officials no longer recommend mask mandates in schools. District leaders also say the risk of getting COVID-19 now is low, considering the small number of cases circulating in the community.

“The district has remained responsive to change throughout the pandemic and we must continue to remain nimble and pivot if the health data changes,” said CPS CEO Pedro Martinez. “Our staff and families must be confident that we will act quickly and implement safety procedures as needed.”

In a statement, CPS spokesperson Mary Fergus also said that “CPS is committed to continuing to bargaining with CTU to reach a workable solution.”

On Monday, CPS said the overall vaccination rate was now up to 49%. In the month from Jan. 18 to Feb. 22, the percentage of fully vaccinated students increased by 10 percentage points, to 44%, according to WBEZ’s analysis. Vaccination rates among elementary children rose from 23% to 37%, and among high school students, from 56% to 59%. The vaccination rates for CPS students are lower than those for children in the city as a whole, but are better than national averages, especially for younger students.

The teachers union insists that its safety agreement prevents the district from making this decision unilaterally. The union said the move to make masks optional without bargaining will have serious health and safety consequences. Its unfair labor practice complaint could be heard before the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board as soon as March 16.

The CTU wants the school district to allow more students to attend a virtual academy, which has been limited to medically fragile children, and allow additional accommodations for medically vulnerable staff. The union also wants the district to develop a clear safety plan for preschoolers under the age of 5 who aren’t eligible to be vaccinated and to put in place a metric for reinstituting the mask requirement in case the pandemic worsens. It also wants the school district to “ensure no one is stigmatized for wearing a mask.”

The school district was under pressure to change its policy. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention no longer recommends masks in schools in areas of low transmission like Chicago, and the governor’s mask mandate lifted last week. Notably, CPS also was facing the request for the temporary restraining order filed by downstate lawyer Tom DeVore, whose legal efforts last month led to the toppling of the state’s school mask mandate.

In her statement, Fergus said CPS’ mask optional announcement is in “everyone’s best interest including our partners in labor. … Rather than wait to have this decision thrust upon us by people outside of CPS and in ways that might ignore CPS’ unique circumstances, the CEO acted swiftly so that his autonomy to make prudent health decisions based on what’s happening in CPS communities would not be affected going forward.”

CTU accused the school district of prioritizing DeVore’s wishes. In a statement, CTU called DeVore “an opportunistic, right-wing extremist hundreds of miles away from Chicago.”

The school district said it will continue many of its COVID-19 safety mitigation measures after the mask mandate ends, including voluntary on-site testing and contact tracing. CPS said it will update its safety protocols before the mask mandate lifts next week.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.