CHICAGO — Chicago schools are adjusting to a new reality where students and staff can choose whether to wear masks for the first time since the return of in-person learning.
Monday marked the first day of Chicago Public Schools’ mask-optional policy. CPS officials announced last week the district would lift its mask requirement, allowing students, teachers and staff to decide if they’d wear a face covering in classrooms.
The policy has proven controversial: Some lauded it as a return to normalcy, especially as the city’s and state’s mask mandates have ended. But the Chicago Teachers Union filed an unfair labor practice charge against CPS, and some parents said they’re worried the change is coming too soon, since children 5 and younger cannot be vaccinated yet.
Across the district, 49 percent of students are fully vaccinated, CPS officials said.
About 30 percent of 5-11 year olds are fully vaccinated. About 56 percent of kids 12 and up are fully vaccinated, according to CPS counts.
As classes were dismissed Monday at Benito Juarez High School in Pilsen, most students still wore masks even as they hung out with friends or waited for the bus. Liz Winfield, a Juarez teacher, said she felt a bit anxious heading into school that morning.
“I had no idea what it was going to be like,” said Winfield, a Chicago Teachers Union delegate. But she said students inside were “surprisingly masked.”
Winfield said she hardly saw any students maskless at school, and students who might not have been masked during class wore them in the hallways during passing periods. The school didn’t do anything to prepare for the move to mask-optional, but it’s been common practice for teachers to keep their windows open and use air purifiers, she said.
A ninth grader at Juarez said most of her classmates kept masks on while in school. While she respects everyone’s choices, she said she’ll keep her mask on for now.
“I just think that some students still aren’t vaccinated,” she said.
A WBEZ analysis shows about 69 percent of Juarez students were fully vaccinated as of late February.
Many students at John A. Walsh Elementary School in Pilsen also opted for masks. Dariel, an eighth grader, said it was “a little strange” to see a couple classmates without masks. His mother, Tania Rodriguez, said she didn’t agree with the district’s decision to go masks-optional.
“They’re in these small classrooms, not in open air,” Rodriguez said in Spanish.
Outside Powell Elementary School in South Shore, dozens of students — some wearing masks properly, others wearing them around their chin or not at all — flooded out of the school. One school employee, who declined to share his name, said most students and staff wore masks inside the building Monday.
Most parents and bus drivers who came to pick up kids wore masks, too.
Several students at Lincoln Park High School said most kids and teachers wore masks.
“I personally don’t judge people who don’t wear masks, but I think there’s a tension in the school between people who wore masks and those who didn’t,” one senior said.
Another Lincoln Park senior said she and two other students were made fun of during her fifth-period class because they were the only ones still wearing masks.
“I told them my reason for wearing a mask, which is because my mother is a nurse, and if she can keep her mask on all day, I can do that, too, for her,” she said. “So, that’s the reason I’m doing it, and I just explained that to my classmates.”
Cecilia Acevedo, parent to a first grader at Brentano Elementary School in Logan Square, said she worried about masks being optional.
“Lots of other parents are concerned about the lack of preparation and realizing that social distancing is not occurring, even before with the mandated masks,” Acevedo said.
Some parents, like Vanessa Chavez, said they were leaving it up to their children to decide whether they want to wear a mask. Chavez’s daughter is a seventh grader at Pritzker Elementary in Wicker Park and said she wants to try wearing her mask “one day on, one day off” to see how it goes. Chavez said it is important kids can see each other’s faces at school, especially during their early teenage years.
“She’s a girl and in seventh grade, so these years are so important for just like emotional, social interactions. And you know, they’ve been hiding for so long,” Chavez said. “Last time she was maskless in school, she was in fifth grade.”
Chavez isn’t concerned about the spread of COVID-19 in schools, and she thinks the decision for students to wear masks should be left to individual families, not CPS.
“No two kids are the same. Everyone’s at a different point emotionally, developmentally, and I think it’s important for people to do what they feel is best for their kids,” Chavez said.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Monday the city should be grateful to be at a point in the pandemic where schools can move to a mask-optional policy, as Chicago’s positivity rate below 1 percent.
“This is a good news story because of the hard work and sacrifice of so many … that stayed home, that made the sacrifice to limit their contact with people outside their home, the restaurants and businesses that endured capacity limits,” Lightfoot said.
Lightfoot said she would still “encourage” masks in school communities with lower vaccination rates.
Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, has repeatedly said schools are not a significant source of COVID-19 spread. And the city is in “the best place we’ve been from a COVID perspective,” she said.
“CPS has been looking … at other school systems in Chicago that, of course, had moved to a mask-optional even a few weeks ago,” Arwady said. “We’ve not seen major problems, as expected, with outbreaks, with surges in, for example, the parochial schools or some of the private schools.”
A spokesperson for CPS said “the vast majority” of schools didn’t report any concerns or issues Monday surrounding the policy.
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 at CPS schools are concerning, 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.
Block Club Chicago’s Kelly Bauer, Jake Wittich, Mina Bloom, Quinn Myers and Maxwell Evans contributed to this report.
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