CHICAGO - As mask mandate fights have roiled districts around the state the past month, Chicago Public Schools officials and Board of Education members defended their commitment to masking Wednesday while opening the door for a relaxed policy later this spring.
Schools chief Pedro Martinez said he’s open to the idea of lifting the district’s mask mandate at some point but cautioned against impulsive decisions.
"I do predict there’ll be a day we can go mask optional," Martinez told the Board of Education at its meeting Wednesday in the Loop. "And I would love that to happen before the end of the school year.
"Right now though, I feel like in a movie that keeps rewinding because one month it’s, ‘Everybody should be remote, nobody should be in school, it’s too dangerous.’ The next month it’s, ‘Nobody should have masks, they’re terrible, they’re hurting our children.’"
The school board unanimously approved a resolution that etched in stone the district’s pandemic protections over the past two years and reaffirmed Martinez’s power to respond to safety needs as necessary. Despite suggestions from critics, the measure did not cede the board’s authority to approve or deny future policies.
Martinez and board members were responding to nearly a dozen parents at the board meeting who spoke in opposition to the mask mandate, some claiming their children’s rights were being violated and that the district was caving to the Chicago Teachers Union. The safety agreement reached between CPS and CTU last month requires universal masking through August unless it’s renegotiated. Outgoing CTU President Jesse Sharkey said the union would take direction from its members when it comes time for those discussions.
"My children’s due process is not a part of their bargaining agreement," said Sarah Sachen, mother of four CPS students. "I believe this is political theater to appease the CTU and it dangerously sends the message that schools aren’t safe. … Anyone who is still cautious can definitely choose to wear a mask. But no longer will I allow my children’s rights to a free and appropriate mask-free education and their mental health be damaged by baseless mask mandates."
Federal, state and local public health officials have all said masks are effective protections against the spread of COVID-19. And a Morning Consult poll conducted for the New York Times last month found 68% of Americans supported mask mandates in schools to control the spread of Omicron. That was before the latest wave subsided. Other polls have shown similar hesitancy to lift requirements.
Martinez is due in court later this week after Mount Greenwood parents accused the district and their school’s principal of violating a judge’s order that temporarily halted Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s statewide school mask mandate. That judge could tell Martinez to drop CPS’ requirements, or at the very least allow the children of the parents involved in the lawsuit to go to school maskless.
Board member and early childhood education expert Luisiana Melendez, responding to claims that masks are stunting children’s educational development, said she’d like to see more research before making decisions based on those perceived harms.
"I think we need a broader perspective so these conversations can be done based on fact and not on individual impact," she said. "Because although that individual impact I acknowledge, respect and want to respond to, I think that the conversation is currently, from my point of view, going on about individual points of view and not collective well-being of the whole system."
Another board member, Elizabeth Todd-Breland, said it’s fair to ask what metrics will be considered to remove the mask mandate but "I also am very comfortable that today … being cautious is the right thing to do and it’s appropriate.
"We’ve been through this now a couple years, we’ve seen the numbers go down and we’ve seen them spike right back up again," Todd-Breland said. She added that the argument around masks shows how the pandemic has had drastically different effects on communities, and public health considerations should protect the most vulnerable, not the most privileged.
"It’s our family members who have been more sick, it’s our family members who have died, it’s our family members and our communities who have been dramatically impacted by COVID," Todd-Breland, a Black woman, said of Black and brown communities. "Masks are not oppressing anyone. … Oppression and systemic inequality is what has actually caused the disproportionate impact along those lines of race and class."