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Chicago Public Schools Ending Mask Mandate Next Week; Teachers’ Union Calls Move A ‘Clear Violation’ Of COVID-19 Safety Agreement

CBS Chicago logo CBS Chicago 3/8/2022 Syndicated Local – CBS Chicago

By Chris Tye and Dana Kozlov

CHICAGO (CBS) — Chicago Public Schools will lift the mask mandate for all students and staff next week, shifting to a mask optional plan beginning March 14, a move the Chicago Teachers Union called a “clear violation” of the district’s COVID-19 safety agreement with the union, which requires masks in schools through late August.

CPS officials cited declining COVID-19 numbers and increasing vaccination rates in the district as the reason for making masks optional effective next 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. “We will support our staff and students as we enter this new phase in the pandemic and continue to move forward together.”

According to CPS, 64% of students age 12-17 have had at least one dose of the vaccine, compared to a 68% nationwide vaccination rate for that age group. The district also said kids age 5-11 at CPS have had at least one dose of the vaccine, well ahead of the national average of 33% for that age group.

More than 91% of CPS staff have been fully vaccinated, according to CPS.

“Chicago is at low risk for COVID-19 by every metric, including the historic and current metrics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” CPS officials said in a statement. “The city’s case counts and positivity are the lowest they have been since July 2021 and continue to fall.”

The Chicago Teachers Union said the district’s unilateral decision to lift the mask mandate “is a clear violation” of a COVID-19 safety agreement CPS negotiated with the union in January, after a heated dispute over the return to classrooms from remote learning led to teachers walking out and the district cancelling five days of classes. That COVID-19 safety agreement between CPS and CTU required masks for all students, teachers, and staff through Aug. 26.

The January safety agreement does not specifically mention mask-wearing. But union leaders say it doesn’t have to – because terms of a February 2021 safety agreement are still in effect.

That agreement states, “All persons entering a CPS facility are required to wear a face mask.”

The union says this should have been negotiated.

“Our union will immediately be filing an unfair labor practice (ULP) charge against the district in response, and requesting that CPS bargain over this decision — a decision that impacts nearly 400,000 students, educators and school staffers in Chicago,” the union said in a statement.

CBS 2 Political Investigator Dana Kozlov asked labor attorney Keri-Lyn Krafthefer if filing the unfair labor practice claim was a prudent move.


Video: CPS Says Masks Will Be Optional Starting Next Monday (CBS Chicago)

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“I think they need to, to protect the interests of their membership,” said Krafthefer. “I don’t know that it will necessarily be successful. But they’re doing their job.”

For their part, parents said the question of their kids wearing a mask or not is not a decision that comes easy.

Chris Gawronski said he’s torn, because his kindergarten daughter has never seen her teacher’s face.

“If the teacher decides that she’s not going to wear a mask, I think we will probably decide that our daughter is safe as well,” said

Chiquita Wilson said she’ll be telling her kindergarten son to keep his mask on.

“I think we are still in the middle of a pandemic, and I don’t think that the cases have gone down enough to go back to normalcy,” she said.

We heard from other parents who support the plan to drop the mask mandate, and the older the student, the more apt parents seemed to be to want their kids to take off their masks.

Chicago Public Schools students younger than second grade have never been in a school building without a mask.

CPS said it will continue to encourage everyone to wear masks in schools, especially those with lower vaccination rates, but will also support those who choose not to wear a mask and, “will provide tools that teachers and parents can use to guide conversations with students about the importance of honoring and respecting everyone’s personal choice.”

“The adults in our school communities will set the tone during this transition,” said CPS Chief Education Officer Bogdana Chkoumbova. “I am confident that we will continue to support and respect one another through this next phase of the pandemic. Family and community situations may change and dictate if a student or staff member wears a mask and we all need to ensure that everyone feels welcome to continue the practice that makes them feel safest and most comfortable.”

The union said, while it’s fortunate that COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are low in Chicago, vaccination rates remain low at many schools, especially those in communities with largely Black and Latino populations on the South and West sides.

“Students of color and their communities are particularly vulnerable as only 25 percent of all CPS schools have more than half of students fully vaccinated. Pre-kindergarten students, who are not yet eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccines, are also particularly vulnerable,” the union said.

The union also accused Lightfoot of caving in to attorney Thomas Devore, who has filed multiple lawsuits challenging various COVID-19 mitigations put in place by Gov. JB Pritzker and others, and is running as a Republican for Illinois attorney general. While most of those lawsuits have failed, a downstate judge last month halted enforcement of Gov. JB Pritzker’s school mask mandate at nearly 170 school districts across the state, issuing a temporary restraining order Devore had sought. While Pritzker later lifted the statewide school mask mandate, and the Illinois Supreme Court vacated the restraining order in that case, Devore is now asking the same downstate judge who ruled in his favor to block the CPS mask mandate that is currently in effect.

“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 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 officials wrote in a press release. “Chicago Public Schools has gone from mayoral control to Devore control, as the downstate swindler calls the shots, the mayor capitulates and CPS falls in line.”

The union is calling on CPS to provide additional accommodations to students and staff to allow for remote options for those who are medically vulnerable. They also want CPS to provide a specific plan for distributing masks to all schools for students and staff who want them; to provide guidance and training to staff and parents “to ensure that no one is stigmatized for continuing to wear a mask,” to come up with a plan to protect students under age 5 who aren’t yet eligible to be vaccinated, to provide specific metrics for when masks will be required again if there’s another surge in cases, to track the impact of going mask optional, and to provide time for staff to conduct phone banking to encourage students to get tested and vaccinated.

Mayor Lightfoot late Monday tweeted out a letter to CTU president Jesse Sharkey, saying among other things that discussions the mask policy and all COVID-19 mitigation measures were based on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Illinois Department of Public Health. The mayor wrote that those recommendations have changed, and so should the agreement.

Mayor Lightfoot’s letter also said the move will allow CPS to maintain decision-making authority, should a judge rule in favor of Devore.

It could take weeks or months for the Education Labor Relations Board to hear the issue – unless the union wants to ask for expedited consideration. T here is no indication, at this point, that the union is planning on doing so – and thus, the district’s decision sticks.

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