CPS to drop mask mandate ‘in the near future,’ CEO says

The move to a mask-optional policy would follow the vast majority of Illinois school districts that have abandoned their requirements amid an ongoing legal challenge.

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Chicago schools could be making masks optional soon, officials said this week.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Chicago Public Schools will drop its mask mandate “in the near future,” CEO Pedro Martinez told principals this week in an abrupt change only days after the school district and Board of Education reaffirmed their commitment to masks.

The move to a mask-optional policy would follow the vast majority of Illinois school districts that have abandoned their requirements amid an ongoing legal challenge from a downstate Republican attorney general candidate that is set to drag Martinez into court next week.

In an email to principals Tuesday evening, Martinez and chief education officer Bogdana Chkoumbova wrote “while we will continue to strongly encourage the use of masks in schools, we expect that CPS will be moving to a mask optional model for all students and staff in the near future.

“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,” they said.

Just last week, Martinez predicted a longer timeline for lifting the mandate, telling the school board, “I would love that to happen before the end of the school year” but committing to masks for the foreseeable future because of wide disparities in school communities’ vaccination rates. At that meeting, the Board of Education unanimously approved a resolution that etched in stone the district’s pandemic protections over the past two years.

CPS spokeswoman Mary Fergus said the change of plans is due to “the low number of positive cases in our schools and community, as well as declining hospitalization rates.” CPS plans to share more information early next week.

“Universal masking of students and staff, has, in fact, been one of our most successful mitigation measures,” she said. “As always, we’ll develop our updated policies and procedures based on science and in particular, consultation with our federal, state and city health partners and in collaboration with district parents, staff, and the Chicago Teachers Union.”

Tom DeVore, the attorney who has represented parents pushing for mask-free schools statewide, filed a motion for a temporary restraining order against CPS’ mask mandate, with he and Martinez due in court March 10. DeVore said Martinez’s email to principals went out a few hours after the court date was set Tuesday.

“They made a decision to get out in front of an order against them next Thursday., said DeVore, an attorney in Bond County, about 260 miles southwest of Chicago. “ ... It saves them the embarrassment.”

The case stems from a lawsuit that led a downstate judge this winter to pause mandates for over 150 districts while the courts reviewed Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s authority for such emergency measures. Attorney General Kwame Raoul asked the Illinois Supreme Court to review the decision and it declined, sending the case back to an appellate court while leaving key legal questions unanswered.

Pritzker dropped the statewide mandate this week after new federal guidance softened recommendations for masks in schools. In the Pritzker administration’s view, however, the governor kept his authority to reissue requirements if COVID-19 conditions worsen. In the meantime, he said each district can decide its own policies — and about 94% of them have moved to masks optional, according to the Illinois Association of School Administrators. CPS remains the largest to keep its mandate.

In Chicago, DeVore is representing a few Mount Greenwood parents whose children were told to either wear masks or leave their school. A temporary restraining order next week would only apply to those families — not wipe out the entire district’s policy — but it would mark a judge going on record saying CPS doesn’t have the authority to require masks. If the district drops its mandate before then, the hearing would be canceled although the case would continue.

The Chicago Teachers Union has said its binding safety agreement with CPS — which requires masks through August — means the district can’t unilaterally drop its mandate without returning to the bargaining table.

“We are all in a better place with COVID-19 today than we were a month ago, but we also understand that schools are congregate settings, and less than 25% of students in many South and West side schools are vaccinated,” CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said, adding that “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.”

Before Martinez’s message to principals, he and CPS attorneys met with Davis Gates and CTU president Jesse Sharkey and their lawyer to discuss masks and other COVID-19 safety protocols.

Sharkey emailed the union’s 25,000 members Wednesday morning with a survey asking for their thoughts on the district’s mask mandate and other mitigations. “In the current context, what is your personal opinion about requiring students and staff to wear masks in schools the remainder of the school year?” the survey asked.

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