CHICAGO - Chicago Public Schools is dropping its mask mandate next Monday, citing a sharp decline in COVID-19 cases over the past few weeks and a pending court ruling while breaking an agreement with the Chicago Teachers Union to maintain universal masking through the end of the school year.
The change comes as nearly all other Illinois school districts have switched to mask-optional policies this month, and as political pressure mounts against pandemic restrictions despite wide disparities in vaccination rates between communities.
CPS leaders and Board of Education members are only 12 days removed from reaffirming their commitment to masks, but that stance changed after new federal guidance softened recommendations for masks in schools and it also became clear they would face a court challenge this week.
"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 Monday. "We will support our staff and students as we enter this new phase in the pandemic and continue to move forward together."
District officials said student vaccination rates are now near the national average for the 12-17 age group and above average for the 5-11 range. And the city’s COVID-19 metrics are at their lowest since last July — Chicago is averaging 191 cases and 16 hospitalizations per day over the past week with 0.8% positivity, according to city records. At CPS, 141 students and 53 adults tested positive last week out of a total population of about 272,000 kids and 30,000 staff.
Still, only 49% of all CPS students are fully vaccinated. And at nearly 50 schools, 10% of students or less are fully vaccinated as of late last month, according to a WBEZ analysis of vaccination data for the district’s nearly 650 schools.
A court date had been set for Thursday in an ongoing legal battle waged by Republican attorney general candidate Tom DeVore and some Mount Greenwood parents that could have seen a judge issue a temporary restraining order against CPS’ mask mandate. If the judge were to grant the parents’ request, only their children would have been allowed to go to school unmasked but officials feared the decision could hurt their ability to issue mandates in the future.
DeVore said Monday he would withdraw the restraining order request — and the hearing would be canceled — since there’s no longer a mandate to challenge.
In a letter to CTU President Jesse Sharkey on Monday, Lightfoot said the decision was made partly "in recognition that a judicial determination forcing CPS’ hand on this matter would be harmful for all stakeholders, including CTU’s interests."
"As I am sure you can agree, it is imperative that CPS maintains authority over its own ability to implement COVID mitigation policies," the mayor wrote. "A judicial decision in this matter could set precedent over CPS’ ability to do just that going forward — even if we enter another variant surge. In the interest of ensuring CPS’ autonomy to make the most prudent public health decisions in any given circumstance that may arise, we believe it is crucial that we move swiftly ahead of any judicial ruling to make masking optional."
Chicago Teachers Union: Move constitutes an unfair labor practice
The CTU is challenging the policy change, however, filing an unfair labor practice charge against CPS shortly after the announcement and requesting the district bargain over the decision. The union’s safety agreement, signed after tense negotiations led to five days of canceled classes in January, requires universal masking of students and staff through August. This change by CPS breaks that agreement since it comes without renegotiating the deal — an issue Lightfoot did not address in her letter.
"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 union said in a statement. "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."
CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates tweeted after the announcement Monday that the majority of CPS families are "yet again, reminded that they [have] zero influence in how school policy is created for our kids."