Video: The politics of lifting mask mandates, and a profanity-laced confrontation between state lawmakers on the House floor, our Spotlight Politics team gets into that and more. (Produced by Alex Silets)
The head of Chicago Public Schools said he hopes the district will be able to make masking for students and staff optional, rather than mandatory, inside buildings before the end of the current school year.
Despite a safety agreement with the Chicago Teachers Union that requires universal masking in schools until the end of the academic year, CPS officials on Wednesday said there may come a time sooner in which masks will not be mandatory.
“I do predict there will be a day we can go mask optional and I would love that to happen before the end of the school year,” CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said Wednesday. “Just to be really clear, that’s really what has been my hope all along.”
That agreement between CPS and the CTU came about following a union labor action that saw classes shut down for five days last month as teachers refused to work in-person en masse until reaching a COVID-19 safety deal with the city.
One result of that deal was that CPS agreed to continue requiring masks in schools through August. But the Board of Education on Wednesday approved a resolution reaffirming that Martinez has the authority to “maintain or alter, modify or amend current COVID-19 mitigation measures in consultation with public health officials and other stakeholders.”
Even so, the CTU maintains the city must bargain with it before making any changes.
“Masks remain a critical layer of safety against a virus that continues to infect and cause deaths every day,” the CTU said in a statement Tuesday.
Several parent participants spoke out about the district’s mask requirements during Wednesday’s board meeting. And mask mandates are also under fire across Illinois.
A judge issued a temporary restraining order halting Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s statewide mask mandate in schools earlier this month. And while CPS believes it is exempt from that ruling due to its agreement with CTU, parents in Mount Greenwood are seeking to have a CPS principal held in contempt for requiring masks in defiance of that ruling.
Martinez’s comments came one day after Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced Chicago would be dropping its indoor mask mandate along with the rest of the state next Monday. But that decision does not affect CPS schools, which will still require students and staff to mask up, for now.
The district in a statement Tuesday said it has made “great progress in recent weeks against this virus, and we do not want to jeopardize that progress by moving too quickly” to remove any safety measures.
“Absent a new variant, there will be a point in time — in the near future, I think — when we will be able to go mask optional,” Board of Education President Miguel del Valle said. “And so let’s all work to get to that point.”
According to Martinez, the number of COVID-19 cases continues to decline within CPS, which has a positivity rate below 1%. The number of students and staff in quarantine or isolation have also fallen to their lowest level since the start of the school year.
Both Martinez and del Valle stressed Wednesday they are not rushing to make masks optional and will only do so once they can be sure students and staff will still be safe. Particularly, they want to see more vaccines among students living in communities with vaccination rates well below the city average.
“What I’ve always committed to the board and to the community and to our parents is we’re never gonna make a decision that’s impulsive,” Martinez said. “It will always be informed, it will always be in the best interest of our children and it will also be with the understanding of information that I have.”