Is a COVID-19 vaccine mandate on the way for Chicago Public Schools students? ‘We need to keep talking about this,’ Board of Ed member says

Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS
·3 min read

With just over a third of Chicago Public Schools students fully vaccinated against COVID-19, a member of the Chicago Board of Education said Wednesday she doesn’t “see a world in which we start school next year without a vaccine mandate.”

“If you look around, the places where they’ve been able to get high vaccination rates have been in places where at least for some period of time there was a vaccine mandate,” board member Elizabeth Todd-Breland said.

“We need to keep talking about this. I know (Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health) in the fall said not this year. I don’t know if omicron made her reconsider. I don’t know where things are. I know we’re dependent on the state for this, but we can’t just keep hoping and wishing.”

The discussion arose during Wednesday’s monthly board meeting after CPS’ chief health officer, Dr. Kenneth Fox, noted the challenge in persuading parents who are hesitant about the vaccine. Around 116,000 of the 330,000 students enrolled in CPS are fully vaccinated, while about 148,000 students have received at least one dose, according to the district.

CEO Pedro Martinez on Wednesday noted an increase in vaccinations of 5- to 11-year-olds, but said looking at the vaccination data for students 12 and older is “like watching paint dry.” About 53% of CPS students 12 and older are fully vaccinated, according to CPS, while about a third of students 5 to 11 years old have received at least one dose.

“I think we’ve got to keep talking about it,” Martinez said about a student vaccine mandate. He expressed disappointment the issue had not been taken up at the federal level.

Ezike said in November that she thought it was “premature to think about requiring” the vaccine mandate for schoolchildren and that the state would “probably would want (the vaccine) to have the standard authorization” as opposed to emergency use authorization.

“But,” she added, “that’s not probably for forever. That probably could change much further down the line.”

CPS initially had a staff vaccine mandate, but the district later relaxed the rules so unvaccinated staff members would be allowed to work if they got tested weekly for COVID-19. Around 91% of CPS staff is fully vaccinated, according to the district.

Some universities have implemented student vaccine mandates. Cristo Rey Jesuit High School requires its students to be fully vaccinated. A representative for the private Pilsen school said nine students withdrew because of the directive, but there has been “little impact” from coronavirus this school year.

At CPS, about 15,000 students this week have been isolating because they tested positive for the virus or quarantining because they came in contact with an infected person and they are not fully vaccinated.

Six CPS elementary schools have decided to temporarily transition to remote learning since the district and the Chicago Teachers Union reached agreement earlier this month on COVID-19 metrics that could shutter school buildings. That agreement was ratified by the school board Wednesday.

“The newly negotiated agreement allows schools that meet specific negotiated metrics to vote on whether they will suspend in-person learning at their school and elect to shift the entire school to remote learning for five days if they believe this is necessary to protect people from COVID-19,” said Fox, who is retiring from the district.

“Since the return from the work stoppage, 11 schools have met the threshold. They met the metric, but only six elected to suspend in-person learning — wisely, I might add.”

Tribune’s Dan Petrella contributed.

tswartz@tribpub.com

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