CHICAGO — Chicago Public Schools is removing its districtwide mask mandate March 14, giving students and staff the choice on whether to mask up in classrooms, in outdoor school settings and on school buses.
Pre-K through 12th-grade students will be allowed to wear a mask or not starting next week, CPS officials said Monday. The shift comes as vaccinations among children, teens and district employees tick up, and the city’s COVID-19 cases and positivity rates trend down, officials said. Still, most CPS schools have fewer than half of their students fully vaccinated.
The change to mask-optional was widely expected — but it has generated controversy. The Chicago Teachers Union last week threatened consequences if the move was made.
On Monday, CTU leaders announced they will file an unfair labor practice charge against the district, saying that going mask-optional is a “clear violation” of the agreement the union and CPS came to when battling over a return to in-person learning in mid-January.
CPS kept its masking policy in place even as Illinois officials battled to keep a statewide mandate in place. But CPS officials hinted they also would remove the requirement as the state and city relaxed their rules for wearing masks and many other school districts also adopted mask-optional policies.
In response, Chicago Teacher Union leaders said ending the mask mandate without negotiating with the union could lead to a standoff.
“If CPS moves toward making masks optional without bargaining to do so safely, this refusal to honor our agreement will have consequences,” union President Jesse Sharkey wrote last week in a letter Mayor Lori Lightfoot and district leaders.
Even without the requirement, CPS officials said they would still encourage people to wear masks, particularly in schools with lower-than-average vaccination rates.
“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.”
District officials are expected to share more information with families before the mask-optional policy goes into effect. CPS leaders also said they would give teachers and parents suggestions 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,” Chief Education Officer Bogdana Chkoumbova said in a statement. “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.”
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