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Chicago Public Schools moves to mask-optional policy starting March 14

Students walk in the brick-lined hallways at North-Grand High School in Chicago in May 2019.

Chicago Public Schools will transition to mask optional starting March 14.

Stacey Rupolo for Chalkbeat

Chicago Public Schools will lift its indoor mask mandate for pre-K through 12th grade students and staff starting March 14 – a decision met with opposition by its teachers union, which cautioned that the move violated a safety agreement and said it plans to file an unfair labor practice complaint against the district.

On Monday, the district announced it would go to a mask-optional policy, aligning with updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which in late February recommended that school districts drop mask mandates unless COVID cases and hospitalizations in their region were high.

Under the CDC’s COVID Tracker, Cook County, which includes Chicago, has a level of transmission that is currently considered substantial.

The change in the CPS policy will encourage students and staff to continue to wear masks, but allows parents and employees to decide whether to wear masks indoors, the district said in a statement.

CPS was one of the first to require universal masking in schools, and we would not be moving to a mask-optional model unless the data and our public health experts indicated that it is safe for our school communities,” CEO Pedro Martinez said in a statement. “We will support our staff and students as we enter this new phase in the pandemic and continue to move forward together.”

As part of the change in mask policy, the district will continue other safety mitigations including on-site testing and contact tracing.

Following the announcement, the Chicago Teachers Union argued lifting the mask mandate violated a safety agreement that requires masking through the end of the school year. The agreement was forged after district officials canceled five days of classes when teachers walked out over safety concerns amid the rise of COVID-19 cases across the city.  

The union vowed to immediately file an unfair labor practice complaint, while also requesting Chicago Public Schools bargain over the updated mask policy.  

“The district’s move to make masks optional without bargaining to do so safely will have health and safety consequences, so we continue to call on CPS to drastically improve accommodations by providing greater access to the Virtual Academy,” the union said in a statement.

The union also called for the district to provide additional accommodations for staff with medical vulnerabilities, additional details on a metric for when it would re-introduce masks should COVID cases increase, and how it planned to keep students under 5, who are not eligible for the vaccine, safe.

In addition, the union wants training for staff and families to prevent anyone from being “stigmatized for continuing to wear a mask.”

Moving to mask-optional would “undo progress” and “threaten the health and the safety” of a large swath of unvaccinated students on the South and West Sides, union president Jesse Sharkey said in a Friday letter to the mayor.

About 30% of students 5- to 11- years-old are fully vaccinated, while 57% in the age group have at least one dose of the COVID vaccine. About 56% of 12- to 17-year-olds are fully vaccinated, and 68% of students have received at least one dose, according to latest figures from the district. 

Last month, Gov. J.B Pritzker battled in court to keep Illinois’ emergency school mask mandate in place even as he lifted a mask requirement across the state. In February, a judge granted a temporary restraining order against masking, vaccination, and testing protocols in schools. Pritzker lost an appeal to get that judgment overturned.

Pritzker said students and staff would no longer be required to wear masks at Illinois schools starting Feb. 28 after the Illinois Supreme Court declined to take up the case. 

Chicago follows other districts across the country, including New York City Public Schools, which lifted its mask mandate for students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Children in pre-K and younger, who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated, must continue to wear masks at schools and day care facilities.

In Chicago, parents on both sides of the debate have spoken up in favor or against masks in classes in recent weeks.

The shift to mask-optional will be the first time Chicago will not require masks in school buildings since the start of the pandemic in March 2020.

This story has been updated to include a statement from the teachers union.

Mauricio Peña is a reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago, covering K-12 schools. Contact Mauricio at mpena@chalkbeat.org.

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