Chicago Public Schools to drop mask mandate on March 14; teachers union vows to fight the change without collective bargaining

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CHICAGO — Chicago Public Schools announced Monday it will make masks optional for staff and students at schools and on school buses beginning March 14, setting up another showdown with the Chicago Teachers Union over COVID-19 safety protocols.

The union said Monday it “will immediately be filing an unfair labor practice charge against the district in response, and requesting that CPS bargain over this decision.” Mandatory masking is one of the tenets of the COVID-19 safety agreement the teachers union forged with CPS in January after a bitter dispute led to five days of canceled classes. In a letter Friday to Mayor Lori Lightfoot, CTU President Jesse Sharkey warned that moving to a mask-optional policy would be a “clear violation” of the agreement.

The district said it’s still encouraging masking for students and adults and will continue contact tracing and on-site COVID-19 testing. CPS’ announcement comes three days before a March 10 court date for the district and attorney Tom DeVore, who has been trying to halt the CPS mask and exclusion mandate. Parents who participated in DeVore’s litigation challenging Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s school COVID-19 policies argued the CPS mask mandate violates their students’ due process rights.

“I am in receipt of the CPS announcement that effective Monday, March 14, 2022, the district will drop its unlawful mask mandate. It’s unfortunate CPS had to be faced with the imminent issuance of a restraining order before finding the courage to take a stand against the teachers union unlawful bargaining provisions,” DeVore said in a statement.

“I’m excited for the parents of CPS students who will now be free to exercise their right to choose what’s best for their children instead of being dictated to by overreaching bureaucracies. The rule of law exists to protect everyone in this state including all children who attend CPS. I will not stop until we are certain these unlawful mandates are never forced upon any child of this state again.”

Most school districts across the country have already transitioned to a mask-optional model. Chicago removed the mask requirements for most public spaces on Feb. 28 to align with the state of Illinois.

At the Feb. 23 Chicago Board of Education meeting, board members said the CPS mask mandate would continue because student vaccination rates vary between schools. On Monday, the district said 49% of CPS students are fully vaccinated. More than 91% of CPS staff members are fully vaccinated.

“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. “We will support our staff and students as we enter this new phase in the pandemic and continue to move forward together.”

CPS said it will share more information with families and staff about the district’s evolving COVID-19 protocols before March 14.

In its statement, CTU called on CPS to allow greater access to its Virtual Academy for students with certain medical conditions and provide additional accommodations to staff with medical vulnerabilities.

“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 its 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.”

Meanwhile, on Friday, Pritzker lifted the state’s school exclusion requirements, saying the Illinois Department of Public Health “strongly recommends” students and staff members stay home when they have a confirmed case of COVID-19. CPS policy is that people who contract COVID-19 and unvaccinated people who come in close contact with an infected person stay home for five days, in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance.