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Masks still rule in Chicago schools ‘for now’ as most of Illinois ditches them; CEO says he’s reviewing guidance

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 2/28/2022 Tracy Swartz, Chicago Tribune
Leigh Mabry White, a Chicago Public Schools mother and member of Activate Chicago Parents, holds a sign as she joins other parents and supporters at a news conference outside City Hall supporting masks in schools on Feb. 28, 2022. © Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS Leigh Mabry White, a Chicago Public Schools mother and member of Activate Chicago Parents, holds a sign as she joins other parents and supporters at a news conference outside City Hall supporting masks in schools on Feb. 28, 2022.

CHICAGO — Mask mandates ended in most of Chicago and Illinois Monday, but not in the state’s largest school district.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez reminded families in a Sunday letter that universal masking is still required in all of its schools and offices “for now.”

Martinez thanked families for their patience. He said the district is reviewing the latest recommendations on masks and “working with our labor and public health partners on how to preserve a safe, healthy learning environment for all as we transition into this new phase of the pandemic.”

A student arrives wearing a mask to Kozminski Community Academy in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood on Feb. 7, 2022. © Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS A student arrives wearing a mask to Kozminski Community Academy in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood on Feb. 7, 2022.

On Friday, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced the end of the mask rule for schools after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance to call for indoor masking only in areas with high COVID-19 transmission. The entire Chicago area is currently in the low risk category.

Scores of Illinois schools had already moved to mask-optional policies after a lawsuit against dozens of districts, including CPS, resulted in a temporary halt to the mandate for children of those who sued.

But in CPS, universal masking is stipulated in a hard-fought COVID-19 safety agreement with the Chicago Teachers Union, which came about after union members refused to teach in person during the omicron surge in January, resulting in five days of canceled classes.

Last week, the Chicago Board of Education took the further step of passing a resolution to affirm masking and other coronavirus-related rules, though it grants Martinez authority to change those policies in consultation with public health officials and “stakeholders.”


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

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A day after the board meeting, CPS announced it had published inaccurate COVID-19 data on its online public dashboard that painted a rosier pandemic picture.

The district said it posted the incorrect number of students in isolation and quarantine between Feb. 18 and Feb. 23 due to a “system error.” Last Tuesday, for example, the district reported 405 students in isolation because they tested positive for the virus or in quarantine because they encountered an infected person. The district is now saying that on that day there were 1,226 students in isolation or quarantine.

CPS has come under fire in recent months for not being consistent with its public data reporting methods. Last week the district once again changed the data it posts on its dashboard, this time to reflect positive cases that were detected from in-school testing, versus cases reported to the district. Case numbers have been falling since mid-January, according to CPS data.

Board members last week cited the low vaccination rates at several district schools as a reason to keep the mask mandate in place. According to the district, nearly 53% of CPS students 12 and older are fully vaccinated, while about one in three students ages 5 to 11 have received at least one vaccine dose. More than 91% of CPS staff is fully vaccinated, the district said.

Parents in CPS are lining up on both sides of the mask issue. A group in favor of keeping the mask rule rallied outside City Hall Monday morning.

“Our special education students deserve to feel safe in school, not to constantly be pushed aside for the sake of normalcy or for the sake of our comfort,” said Leigh Mabry White, a CPS parent of a second grader with autism.

“We demand Chicago Public Schools add the COVID vaccine to the list of required immunizations for fall 2022 … Masks, in combination with vaccination, are our only options to move in the direction that we all want.”

CPS parent Erykah Nava said it’s unfair to leave children under 5 years old to “fend for themselves” because vaccines are not available for that age group.

“When people tell us to learn to live with COVID, or COVID is like the flu, they are really saying our most vulnerable do not matter, that their lives are expendable for the sake of normalcy,” Nava said. “Well, we are here to show that we will never stop fighting for each other’s safety and lives.”

Other parents are urging the district to drop the mandate in alignment with the latest CDC guidance. Several parents attended last week’s board meeting to call for the district to go mask optional like other districts.

Pritzker had already announced that the general statewide mask mandate for most indoor spaces would end Monday, with Chicago following suit.

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