CPS mask-optional policy upheld, for now, by labor board in blow to teachers union

The Illinois Education Labor Relations Board voted 3-2 Wednesday against a preliminary injunction sought by the Chicago Teachers Union.

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Students leave William Wells High School at the end of the school day on March 14, 2022, the first day of CPS’ new mask-optional policy.

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A state labor board has rejected the Chicago Teachers Union’s request to temporarily block Chicago Public Schools’ mask optional policy while the union’s legal challenge plays out.

The Illinois Education Labor Relations Board’s 3-2 vote Wednesday against a preliminary injunction comes as a disappointment to the union in its effort to immediately reinstate universal face coverings at CPS. But the union’s case against the district continues and could be expedited for a hearing as soon as next month.

The CTU has accused CPS of reneging on the pair’s January safety agreement, signed after tense negotiations led to five days of canceled classes for 272,000 students during the height of the city’s Omicron surge. That memorandum of understanding required masks for all students and staff through August but was broken when Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS officials announced a mask optional policy starting this week.

“The Chicago Teachers Union will continue to stand up for maximum safety in Chicago’s public schools and communities,” the union said in a statement after the vote. “Despite disregard for the collective bargaining process from Mayor Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools, our rank-and-file members remain committed to serving students and families safely, and fighting for essential pandemic safety mitigations around vaccinations, contact tracing and COVID-19 testing.”

An administrative law judge will hear the CTU’s case sometime this spring. A hearing was initially set for June, but the IELRB indicated Wednesday it might move the date up to next month.

CPS spokeswoman Mary Fergus said the district is “pleased that we can retain our authority to uphold this policy based on health data which currently lists Chicago in the low-risk category, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a districtwide positivity rate of 0.085%.”

About 30% of students aged 5-11 are fully vaccinated while 56% of those 12 and up are, according to the latest data from CPS officials. More than 91% of staff are fully vaxxed.

Schools chief Pedro Martinez told a lunch crowd at the Economic Club of Chicago last week that he didn’t expect a major dustup with the CTU over the district’s decision to drop the mask mandate.

“This is the first time in two years that I’ve seen the national, state and local level all in complete alignment. We’ve never seen cases this low, we’ve never seen positivity rates this low,” he said last week. “I’m not concerned about ... what may happen in terms of any interruptions.”

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