CHICAGO (WLS) -- Chicago Public Schools announced Monday it is dropping its mask mandate next week, citing a sharp decline in COVID-19 cases as vaccination rates and voluntary testing among their students and staff continue to rise.
The switch to a mask-optional policy would begin on March 14, CPS said.
However, the Chicago Teachers Union said it is a clear violation of their January 12 safety agreement, and they will be filing an unfair labor practice charge against the district.
Parents who were picking up their child from school at Harriet Tubman Elementary Monday had mixed reactions after hearing the news.
"Honestly that's OK with me," CPS parent Tara Spears said. "I know that I'm going to probably still have my kids in their masks. They've gotten so used to it."
"We are just ready for it," CPS parent Ramon Flores said. "I know my kids are ready, even though they're still kind of unsure about what to do."
WATCH | Parents, teachers react to CPS' decision to go mask-optional
The awaited change comes as nearly all other Illinois school districts have switched to mask-optional policies this month.
Chicago's case count and positivity are the lowest they've been since July of last year and continue to fall.
CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said in a statement, in part: "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."
CDPH director Dr. Allison Arwady also defended the policy change.
"We're going to continue to encourage if folks are not vaccinated, that they can choose to continue masking," she said.
"I think the data supports the action," CPS parent John Tephasdin said. "I think maybe before it was not as clear, but now it's so much clearer, so I think it makes sense."
"I feel that until we can get to a better vaccination rate as a district and ensure that every family has access to a vaccine and our numbers go down, that we really shouldn't be talking about taking masks off," CPS parent Charlotte Thoresen said.
Like Thoresen, the Chicago Teachers Union is wary, arguing schools are congregate settings where vaccination rates remain low, especially in Black and brown communities.
The union said in a statement that Monday's move by Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS has "prioritized the needs of Mt. Greenwood over the needs of Englewood, Roseland, Little Village, North Lawndale and Brighton Park."
CPS parent Claiborne Wade has kids in two schools in the Austin neighborhood, and they'll be keeping their masks on.
"The numbers are high in some areas, and some folks haven't been vaccinated," he said. "We want to make sure we're controlling as much as possible."
Overall, 56% of age-eligible CPS students have received at least one dose of their vaccine. More than 91% of all CPS staff are fully vaccinated.
One hundred and forty-one students and 53 adults tested positive for COVID last week. That's out of a total population of about 272,000 kids and 30,000 staff.
"I don't know what's going to happen there," Flores said. "We'll just have to wait and see. It's just what it is. Sign of the times I guess."
The CTU said it "will immediately be filing an unfair labor practice (ULP) charge against the district in response, and requesting that CPS bargain over this decision..."
"CPS does not keep their promises to their families or to their staff," CPS parent Laurie Viets said. "CPS and Lori Lightfoot are not keeping their promises to the city of Chicago."
In a letter released to the Chicago Teachers Union, Lightfoot defended the district's decision to go mask-optional, saying that it was made, in part, due to a downstate legal challenge. She said there were concerns that the ruling could keep the district from implementing future COVID-19 mitigations.
CPS said they still encourage students and staff to wear face masks in schools, especially those with lower vaccination rates. The district will also continue their COVID safety measures, like voluntary on-site testing and contact tracing.
FULL STATEMENT FROM CHICAGO PUBLIC SCHOOLS
Chicago Public Schools (CPS) will move to a mask-optional model for staff and all students, pre-k through grade 12, beginning Monday, 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.
"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," said CPS CEO Pedro Martinez. "We will support our staff and students as we enter this new phase in the pandemic and continue to move forward together."
The number of COVID-19 cases in schools and throughout the city of Chicago has declined sharply over the past several weeks, while at the same time, vaccination rates among CPS students and staff are continuing to rise, and voluntary testing has dramatically increased in schools. Vaccination rates to date:
-CPS COVID-19 vaccination rates are now near the national average for 12-17 year-old students (64 percent of CPS students age 12-17 have had at least a first dose, compared to 68 percent nationally).
-Rates are well above the national average for 5-11 year-old students (47 percent of CPS students age 5-11 have had at least a first dose, compared to 33 percent nationally).
-Overall, 56 percent of age-eligible CPS students have received at least one dose, and nearly half (49 percent) are fully vaccinated.
-More than 91 percent of all CPS staff members are fully vaccinated.
Chicago is at low risk for COVID-19 by every metric, including the historic and current metrics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The city's case counts and positivity are the lowest they have been since July 2021 and continue to fall. Chicago is now averaging just 191 cases of COVID-19 per day, among an average of more than 27,000 daily tests performed, giving a positivity rate of just 0.8%. CPS' screening test positivity rate is dramatically lower than the city's, at 0.14 percent.
The move to mask optional comes two years after the pandemic forced CPS and schools across the state to shut down. Since that time, CPS has relied on the guidance of local, state, and federal public health experts who are now aligned in their opinion that the risk of contracting COVID-19 in schools is very low. Most school districts across the country have already transitioned to a mask-optional model. The City of Chicago removed the mask requirements for certain public spaces on February 28 to align with the State of Illinois, and the CDC recently relaxed mask guidance for communities where hospitals aren't under high strain. Chicago is currently in low risk per the new CDC guidance.
CPS will continue to encourage the practice of wearing masks in schools, especially in schools with lower vaccination rates and among those students and staff who feel most comfortable with a face covering. The District will also support those members of its school communities who choose not to wear a mask, and will provide tools that teachers and parents can use to guide conversations with students about the importance of honoring and respecting everyone's personal choice.
"The adults in our school communities will set the tone during this transition," said Chief Education Officer Bogdana Chkoumbova. "I am confident that we will continue to support and respect one another through this next phase of the pandemic. Family and community situations may change and dictate if a student or staff member wears a mask and we all need to ensure that everyone feels welcome to continue the practice that makes them feel safest and most comfortable."
The District will continue many of its COVID-19 safety mitigation measures including voluntary on-site testing, contact tracing, and proper hand hygiene. Over the past two years, CPS has worked to improve and better monitor indoor air quality with a $15 million investment in HEPA air filters and a $141 million investment to improve mechanical system upgrades. The air quality of every classroom, in every building, based on a third party evaluation, is available on the District website. Students are not in rooms that have not passed the air quality assessments.
CPS will share more information with families and staff before Monday, March 14 around how this change will impact the District's various health and safety protocols.
"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 CEO Martinez. "Our staff and families must be confident that we will act quickly and implement safety procedures as needed."
FULL STATEMENT FROM CHICAGO TEACHERS UNION
The decision by Mayor Lori Lightfoot and her Chicago Public Schools team to unilaterally remove the mask mandate starting March 14, 2022, is a clear violation of our January, 12, 2022, Memorandum of Agreement.
Our union will immediately be filing an unfair labor practice (ULP) charge against the district in response, and requesting that CPS bargain over this decision - a decision that impacts nearly 400,000 students, educators and school staffers in Chicago.
Our city is fortunate that the numbers around the COVID-19 pandemic have shifted, with deaths, hospitalizations and positive cases low. But CPS buildings are congregate settings where vaccination rates also remain low, especially in schools with majority Black and Brown students on the South and West sides of the city.
Students of color and their communities are particularly vulnerable as only 25 percent of all CPS schools have more than half of students fully vaccinated. Pre-kindergarten students, who are not yet eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccines, are also particularly vulnerable.
Said Chicago Board of Education member Elizabeth Todd-Breland - a Black woman - at the Board's meeting in February:
"We've been through this now a couple years, we've seen the numbers go down and we've seen them spike right back up again... It's our family members who have been more sick, it's our family members who have died, it's our family members and our communities who have been dramatically impacted by COVID.
"Masks are not oppressing anyone. ... Oppression and systemic inequality is what has actually caused the disproportionate impact along those lines of race and class."
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 mayor has instead prioritized the wishes of Tom Devore - an opportunistic, right-wing extremist hundreds of miles away from Chicago - over the wishes of the people of our city. She has prioritized the needs of Mt. Greenwood over the needs of Englewood, Roseland, Little Village, North Lawndale and Brighton Park.
Chicago Public Schools has gone from mayoral control to Devore control, as the downstate swindler calls the shots, the mayor capitulates and CPS falls in line.
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. CPS must also provide additional accommodations to staff with medical vulnerabilities for whom collective masking was of critical importance for their safety, in addition to:
-Reporting the number of its adult and pediatric sized masks, and providing a specific plan for ongoing distribution to all schools or to all staff and students who want additional masks.
-Providing guidance and training to staff and families to ensure that no one is stigmatized for continuing to wear a mask.
-Providing a clear plan for how students under five, in particular, who are not eligible to be vaccinated, will remain safe.
-Sharing a transparent plan as to what metric will be used to determine when masks will again be required if conditions worsen, and providing a plan as to how it will assess the impact of going mask optional and how to proactively track and address any negative consequences.
-Sharing a plan for how the district will continue to implement quarantine and contact tracing with fidelity under a mask-optional policy.
-Providing the weekly number of tests implemented, school by school, so there is transparent accountability to the agreement and for all stakeholders.
-Scheduling make-up days/after school hours for members to conduct phone banking to increase student testing consent and participation in vaccination events, particularly at schools where less than 50 percent of students signed up to test, and schools with vaccination rates of eligible students below 50 percent; and ensuring that every school that has an onsite vaccination mobile clinic or other vaccination opportunities has a captain in place to coordinate school efforts for the vaccination events scheduled.