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Chicago Public Schools requires masks at one school, 20 other classrooms as COVID cases increase

A student at Ombudsman Chicago South works on a Chromebook during the first day of school in August 2021.

Chicago Public Schools has reinstated a mask requirement at one elementary school and 20 classrooms at other schools as cases increase across the district.

Lauren Miller for Chalkbeat

As COVID-19 cases surge across Chicago and in a number of city schools, the district has reinstated a mask requirement at one elementary school and 20 classrooms at other campuses.

On Chicago’s North Side, students and staff at Oscar Mayer Magnet School, which has recorded 108 COVID-19 cases since May 1, will be required to mask until May 28, based on guidance from Chicago’s Department of Public Health, district officials said.

As of last week, a 10-day masking requirement also went into effect for 20 classrooms at other schools. The mask requirement will be lifted at various times throughout this week. The last classroom will flip back to mask-optional on May 29, according to district officials.

In the face of litigation around its masking policies, Chicago Public Schools moved to make masking optional in mid-March, but district leaders continued to encourage masking. Rather than reinstate a universal mask mandate, district officials at the time said they would be more surgical in masking by placing requirements on classrooms or entire schools in the face of a surge.

The masking requirement at Mayer Magnet School and 20 classrooms comes as Chicago Public Schools cases have increased in recent weeks, surpassing the mid-January omicron surge. About 1,946 students and 731 staff tested positive for COVID-19 between May 8-14, compared to the mid-January peak where 1,838 students and 545 staff tested positive between Jan. 16-22, data shows.

The district saw a decline in cases last week when 1,423 students and 563 staff tested positive between May 15-21.

Still, across the district, a number of schools have seen an increase in COVID-19 cases between May 1-21. Among the schools seeing an uptick are: 

  • Lane Tech High School, 152 cases 
  • Abraham Lincoln Elementary School,  115 cases
  • William Howard Taft High School, 119 cases
  • Mark Skinner Elementary School, 92 cases
  • Louisa May Alcott College Preparatory Elementary School, 90 cases
  • Alexander Graham Bell Elementary School, 88 cases
  • Thomas J Waters Elementary School, 88 cases
  • Jean Baptiste Beaubien Elementary School, 84 cases 

Carnegie Elementary, Healy Elementary, Nettelhorst Elementary School, and Helen Peirce International Studies Elementary have recorded more than 40 cases in recent weeks, data shows.

In an email statement, Chicago Public Schools said it continues to implement “proven COVID-19 safety mitigation protocols” across the district and continues to encourage masking indoors.

“CPS will adjust these protocols under the guidance of its health partners the Chicago Department of Public Health, the Illinois Department of Public Health, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” according to a district spokesperson.

The district has added capacity to its contact tracing team to help detect and limit spread and is working with public health partners to monitor increases.

On Tuesday afternoon, Dr. Alison Arwady, the city’s health commissioner, said she expects the city’s risk of COVID-19 transmission to move from medium to high this week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention transmission rating system. Still, Arwady said she doesn’t anticipate a mask mandate unless healthcare systems are threatened.

Asked whether masking should be required in schools amid the current increase in cases, Arwady said masking indoors was strongly encouraged, but noted that the city would not mandate masking in schools before a universal masking was put in place at the city level.

“We strongly support any schools, or school districts that decide to put a masking requirement back in place,” Arwady said. “But that is a school decision, or district decision.” 

Health officials have worked with Chicago Public Schools on a focused approach to require masking at schools in the event of an outbreak in a classroom or school setting, Arwady said. 

Earlier this month, CEO Pedro Martinez tested positive for COVID-19. In a statement, Martinez urged staff and families to get vaccinated and boosted. 

On Monday, the Philadelphia public school district returned to universal masking due to rising COVID cases.

In March, Chicago Public Schools moved to lift its mask mandate, aligning itself with updated CDC guidance, which in late February recommended that school districts drop mask mandates unless COVID cases and hospitalizations in their region were high.

Under current policy, students and staff who test positive are required to wear masks for five days after being in quarantine for five days. 

After the district announced it was lifting its mask mandate in March, the Chicago Teachers Union argued that the policy change violated a safety agreement requiring masking through the end of the school year. The agreement was forged after district officials canceled five days of classes in January when teachers voted to work remotely over safety concerns amid the rise of COVID-19 cases across the city. 

Across the district, 361 staff and 2,619 students were quarantined as of Monday.

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

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