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CPS Could Bring Back Masks If COVID Outbreak Worsens Again, Officials Say

The district's CEO said CPS is ending its mask mandate because it didn't want to face legal challenges that could prevent it from imposing another mandate in the future.

8th grade students enter Richardson Middle School as 6th thru 8th graders return to in-person learning in the West Lawn neighborhood on March 8, 2021.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — The CEO of Chicago Public Schools on Tuesday defended the district’s decision to end its mask mandate, and officials said the requirement could return if the city’s COVID-19 outbreak worsens.

CPS’ decision to end its mask mandate come Monday has been met with controversy. Some have welcomed the move, especially as the city’s and state’s indoor mask mandates ended earlier this month and COVID-19 cases have fallen. Others — including the Chicago Teachers Union — have criticized the change, noting that most CPS schools have fewer than half of their students fully vaccinated.

CPS CEO Pedro Martinez, appearing during a question-and-answer livestream with health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady, said the school district is ending its mask mandate partly because it didn’t want to face legal challenges that could prevent CPS from imposing another mandate in the future.

And officials will bring back the in-school mask mandate if Chicago’s COVID-19 outbreak worsens, Martinez and Arwady said.

“Masks are not gone,” Arwady said.

Martinez said CPS waited to drop the mandate while other districts had already ended theirs, and he thinks more people support ending the mandate than oppose it. He said CPS has upped its COVID-19 testing capabilities and is consistently processing more than 60,000 tests per week.

But CTU leaders announced Monday 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.

Union leaders said vaccination rates remain low at CPS schools, and students of color and their communities remain particularly vulnerable to the virus.

“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,” union leaders said in a news release.

Students and staff can still wear masks if they choose, and people will be required to mask in some settings. Children who are not fully vaccinated and are exposed to COVID-19 will still have to quarantine, Arwady said.

The doctor said there is not a heightened risk of spreading COVID-19 in schools — a point she’s repeatedly made — and said officials will keep an eye on COVID-19 metrics, watch out for worrisome variants and bring back masks and other safety precautions if needed.

“We’re all on the same page of wanting to make sure we can educate kids. That’s the top line,” Arwady said. “And that we can do that in person. Education is critical.”

Officials have similarly said they could bring the city and state mask mandates if cases, hospitalizations and deaths rise again.

But Chicago’s is seeing “really good news” in regard to its COVID-19 outbreak, Arwady said. Cases, hospitalizations and deaths have fallen since the Omicron surge led those metrics to record highs in late December and early January.

“No matter what metric you’re looking at, we are in good control,” Arwady said.

Less-vaccinated communities did get hit “much harder” during the surge, but Chicago is in a “good place” in general, Arwady said.

CPS does not yet require students to get vaccinated against COVID-19 to attend school, but Arwady said she imagines conservations about potentially enforcing that could occur in the future. That wouldn’t happen until the vaccines have gained full approval for use with children, though, she said.

If school districts decide to require COVID-19 vaccinations in the future will likely depend on how the country is doing with the pandemic, Arwady said. If troublesome variants don’t develop and metrics “look solid,” it’s not a “foregone conclusion” that COVID-19 vaccines would be required for school attendance, she said.

Vaccinations:

• In Illinois, about 8.1 million people — or 63.93 percent of the state’s 12.7 million people — are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to state data.

• Across the state, 11,616 vaccine doses are being administered per day, based on a seven-day rolling average.

• Illinois and Chicago have administered at least 21,187,726 vaccine doses of the 23,916,045 provided to them.

• City data shows more than 1.8 million Chicagoans — or 69.3 percent of all residents — are fully vaccinated, and 76.8 percent of all Chicagoans have gotten at least one shot.

Everyone 5 and older is eligible to get vaccinated in Chicago.

COVID-19 vaccinations are free and do not require insurance. Anyone can call the city’s coronavirus hotline at 312-746-4835 to get more information on how and where to get vaccinated in their community.

The numbers:

• Since Friday, 30 Illinoisans were reported dead from COVID-19.

• At least 32,956 people have died from COVID-19 in Illinois, and another 4,195 deaths are probably related to the virus, according to the state.

• The state reported 2,607 cases since Friday. That brings the total number of confirmed cases in Illinois up to 3,039,806.

• Since Friday, 243,570 tests were reported statewide. In all, 55,333,070 tests have been reported in Illinois.

• Illinois’ seven-day case positivity rate was at 1.2 percent. The figure represents the percentage of people testing positive among recent tests. It was at 1.4 percent Friday.

• Illinois’ seven-day test positivity rate, which measures the percentage of tests that were positive, was at 1.5 percent. It was at 1.6 percent Friday.

• As of Monday night, 122 people with COVID-19 were in the ICU and 66 people with COVID-19 were using ventilators in Illinois.

• In Chicago, nine deaths were reported since Friday. There have been at least 7,277 deaths from COVID-19 in Chicago. The city is seeing an average of more than three people dying per day, down 31 percent from a week ago.

• Chicago has had 405 confirmed cases reported since Friday. It’s had a total of 559,635 confirmed cases. An average of 191 confirmed cases are being reported per day, down 25 percent from a week ago.

• Testing in Chicago is up 23 percent from a week ago.

• Chicago’s positivity rate was at .8 percent, down from 1.4 percent a week ago.

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