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Chicago Public Schools mask mandate expected to end ‘in the near future,’ CEO says

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 3/2/2022 Tracy Swartz, Chicago Tribune
Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez joins students, teachers and CPS leaders on Feb. 14 outside the newly renamed Harriet Tubman Elementary School. © Raquel Zaldivar/Chicago Tribune/TNS Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez joins students, teachers and CPS leaders on Feb. 14 outside the newly renamed Harriet Tubman Elementary School.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez expects that the school district — the largest in the state to still require masks indoors — will move to a “mask optional model for all students and staff in the near future,” according to a memo he sent to principals this week.

“We understand that this will be a major adjustment for our school communities, and we are committed to providing you with all the support you need during this transition,” Martinez wrote. “We will provide you with materials shortly, including communications to be shared with your families and staff and more details about how we will operationalize this change in schools.”

The district released a statement Wednesday afternoon saying more details about the move to a mask-optional policy will be shared early next week.

The Chicago Board of Education just last week reaffirmed CPS’ universal mask mandate, which is part of the safety agreement the district forged with the Chicago Teachers Union in January after a bitter dispute that led to five days of canceled classes. Board members cited student vaccination rates that vary widely between CPS schools as a reason to keep the mandate in place.

CTU reiterated its support for CPS’ mask mandate in a Wednesday letter to members that asked them to weigh in on face coverings and other COVID-19 protocols “as we look past spring break and toward the end of the school year.” Spring break runs April 11 to 15.

“Polling has overwhelmingly shown that mask mandates are still supported by parents and many throughout the U.S., and we stand behind that support, especially with an unvaccinated prekindergarten population and low vaccination rates in many vulnerable school communities,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said in the letter. “We also know student and parent concerns best because these are the families we work with daily, so we will continue to organize and fight on their behalf.”

CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates released a statement later Wednesday saying that while the COVID-19 situation has improved in the last month, “we also understand that schools are congregate settings, and less than 25% of students in many South and West side schools are vaccinated. Unfortunately, CEO Martinez neglected to venture into those communities to alleviate concerns today. Still, our agreement with the district sets the table for equity and safety for all, and we’ll continue to advance COVID mitigations that help keep Black and brown children and families safe.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced the end of the statewide school mask mandate Friday in light of new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many districts had already opted to go mask-optional after litigation challenging the mask mandate scored some legal victories last month.


Video: Illinois School Mask Mandate Battle Heads To State Supreme Court (CBS Chicago)

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Downstate attorney Tom DeVore — who is representing Chicago parents who filed a lawsuit against Pritzker and the Illinois Department of Public Health, arguing the CPS mask mandate violates their students’ due process rights — said Wednesday he was not surprised to learn about Martinez’s memo to building principals.

DeVore and a CPS representative are expected to appear before Sangamon County Circuit Judge Raylene Grischow on March 10 regarding DeVore’s request for a temporary restraining order to halt the CPS mask and quarantine mandate for the students of parents who filed the lawsuit.

“Within hours of the judge calling a hearing for next week, Martinez announces CPS will be making a change to mask optional, so you need to ask yourself, is that a coincidence, or not?” DeVore said.

“CPS has been running in circles, and now, they know it’s over, and will have to make the change,” DeVore said. “This has always been about the children, and CPS needs to accept that and deal with the union.”

Nancy Griffin, a co-founder of the Chicago Parents Collective, which has been pushing CPS to move to a mask optional policy, said in a statement that given the new federal guidance, and Pritzker’s lifting of the school mask mandate, CPS needs to follow suit.

“When will this city’s children be able to experience a normal school day without the need for politics and negotiations? Why can’t the district and union just do what is right for the children?” Griffin said.

Other parents rallied in support of the mask mandate outside City Hall on Monday, saying the district has a responsibility to protect its most vulnerable population. Data obtained by the Tribune last week shows some West and South side elementary schools have just over 5% of their students fully vaccinated, while student vaccination rates at some North Side schools approach 90%.

Troy LaRaviere, president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, chided CPS leadership for not soliciting principal opinions on the mask mandate.

“No group of educators knows as much about running schools as principals. Yet the experience and views of principals are routinely disregarded by district management when it comes to making policy or offering solutions that impact the schools and students under our care,” LaRaviere said in a statement that also promoted state legislation that would allow Chicago principals to unionize.

“This is what happens when district leadership is more concerned about optics and politics than about creating effective policies that benefit schools and students.”

tswartz@tribpub.com

kcullotta@chicagotribune.com

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