Video: CPS CEO Pedro Martinez and Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady join “Chicago Tonight” to discuss the school district’s move toward a mask-optional policy. (Produced by Marissa Nelson)
Chicago Public Schools will go mask optional beginning next week, the district announced Monday, as the number of COVID-19 cases and quarantines continues to drop.
The district said it will move to a mask-optional model for all staff and across all grade levels on March 14. While CPS will continue to encourage the use of masks, “the shift will give families and employees a choice about whether or not to wear a mask at school, outside on school property, and on school buses,” the district said.
“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,” CPS 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.”
Martinez said masks will still be encouraged.
“We’re committed to safety and we’re committed to following the science. Right now when we look at where we are at with our positivity rate, how low our cases are, the fact that we are doing more COVID testing than ever before, the safety procedures have never been stronger,” Martinez told “Chicago Tonight” on Monday.
The decision comes despite a safety agreement CPS has with the Chicago Teachers Union — whose members refused to work in schools for five days earlier this year while that deal was negotiated — that promised to keep masks on students and staff through the end of the current school year.
The CTU said in a statement Monday it will “immediately be filing an unfair labor practice charge against the district in response, and requesting that CPS bargain over this decision.”
In a letter to Mayor Lori Lightfoot last week, CTU President Jesse Sharkey called the move “extremely troubling” and said it would mark a “clear violation” of the agreement.
“If CPS moves toward making masks optional without bargaining to do so safely, this refusal to honor our agreement will have consequences,” he wrote.
Even so, Martinez has said repeatedly in recent weeks that he believed CPS could soon go mask-free as COVID-19 cases and quarantines continued to decline.
At last month’s Board of Education meeting, Martinez said CPS had a test positivity rate below 1%. And as of Monday, the district was reporting 55 adults and 496 in quarantine or isolation, which is among the lowest levels since the start of the school year.
In a Monday evening interview on “Chicago Tonight,” Chicago Department of Public Health commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said that because the city is in a “good place” in terms of COVID metrics, so are Chicago’s schools.
“The good news is by every metric — old CDC metrics, new CDC metrics — every measure that you count here ... we’re at 0.8% positivity as a city and CPS’s screening positivity is at .14% that is absolutely a place where the risk remains low ... We’re not done with COVID, but we are at a point where we can lift this requirement for everybody.”
There may be limited instances in which masks will be required in schools, including for the test-to-stay program, she said.
More than 91% of all CPS employees are fully vaccinated, but fewer than half of all students (49%) are fully vaccinated.
According to the district, 56% of age-eligible students have gotten at least one vaccine dose. CPS said its vaccination rate among 12-17 year olds is close to the national average (65% in CPS compared to 68% nationally), while the rate among 5-11 year olds is well above the national average (47% in CPS, 33% nationally).
But the CTU has noted that vaccination rates vary wildly across the city, particularly in Black and Brown neighborhoods where those rates are much lower.
“Today’s move by Mayor Lightfoot and CPS not only violates the Union's agreement with the district, it ignores the impact that COVID-19 has on communities of color,” the CTU said.
Chicago and the entire state of Illinois dropped indoor mask mandates last month, though that move excluded CPS schools for the time being.
Meanwhile, the statewide mask mandate in schools officially came to an end last week after the Illinois Supreme Court declined to take up Gov. J.B. Prtizker’s request to overturn an appellate court decision that forced districts to drop their masking requirements.
CPS said it would share more information on its health and safety protocols with families and staff before next week.
“The District has remained responsive to change throughout the pandemic and we must continue to remain nimble and pivot if the health data changes,” Martinez said. “Our staff and families must be confident that we will act quickly and implement safety procedures as needed.”
Heather Cherone and Marissa Nelson contributed to this report.