Chicago Public Schools students and staff will still be required to wear face coverings at schools this fall regardless of their vaccination status, officials announced Thursday.
The long-awaited decision could give concerned parents some level of relief as the district aims for a full-time return to in-person learning next month while the vast majority of students are still unvaccinated and COVID-19 cases are once again on the rise in the city.
“Based on feedback from our public health experts at the local, state and federal levels, as well as the American Academy of Pediatrics, we will require that masks/cloth face coverings continue to be worn indoors by everyone, regardless of vaccination status, except for while eating or drinking,” interim CPS CEO José Torres wrote in an email to families.
“Continuing to require masks will help make sure those in our school communities who are not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, which encompasses the majority of our students, remain as safe as possible.”
Masks will be allowed to be taken off outdoors and during meals, the district said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this month released new guidance that no longer required vaccinated teachers and staff to wear masks indoors, aligning with the country’s broader reopening. Illinois health officials quickly adopted those recommendations but still encouraged school districts to make their own choices.
Masking for the upcoming school year has been a controversial topic in many suburban districts where parents feel the time for universal face coverings has passed. Decisions have been split across the suburbs and the nation, with many districts saying they will continue to require masks while others abandon those protocols. The Chicago Archdiocese said this week that its vaccinated students and staff will not need to wear coverings.
About 47% of Chicago children aged 12 to 17 — regardless of what type of school they attend — had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine as of Wednesday, according to city data. Barely more than a third of that age group is fully vaccinated, while about two-thirds of school-aged children are younger than 12 and not yet eligible for a shot.
The virus is also making a comeback in the city through the highly contagious Delta variant that is spreading rapidly in unvaccinated communities, health experts have said. Chicago cases are up 69% since last week, with an average of 115 new daily infections. About 17 children per day have been diagnosed with COVID-19 over the past week, city data shows.
Even so, CPS said it plans to reduce its required social distancing guidelines from 6 feet to 3 feet to make room for the additional students returning in the fall. CPS had stuck with the more spread out protocols even as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Illinois health officials changed their recommendations to 3 feet months ago.
But that’s when no more than a quarter of all CPS students were in classrooms in the spring. Social distancing may be nearly impossible with almost all students expected back for the new school year.
Officials said some students will eat breakfast and lunch in their classrooms and others will head to cafeterias to maximize social distancing when masks are off.
“Our goal is to keep all students healthy and safe while they learn in-person five days a week with their teachers and peers so they can receive the education and supports they need and deserve,” Torres wrote.
The Chicago Teachers Union is in negotiations with the district over health and safety measures for the fall and had pushed for universal masking to stay in place. The union’s initial proposal also included an 80% student vaccination goal.