A student looks on as public officials tour classrooms at Hawthorne Scholastic Academy while CPS continues its reopening plans in the Lake View neighborhood on March 1, 2021. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

CHICAGO — Monday marks the first day masks are optional at Chicago Public Schools since the return of in-person learning.

Students and staff will be able to decide if they want to wear a mask while in CPS facilities, a change the district announced in early March. CPS officials have said the mask mandate could return if Chicago’s COVID-19 outbreak worsens again, and masks are still required in some settings.

The change has proven controversial, especially as children younger than 5 still cannot be vaccinated against the virus.

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 last week at a livestream with health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady, said the school district ended its mask mandate partly because it didn’t want to face legal challenges that could prevent CPS from imposing another mandate in the future.

Arwady said there is not a heightened risk of spreading COVID-19 in schools — a point she’s repeatedly made — and 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.”

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. 

CTU leaders said they’d 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.

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

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