CTU warns health ‘consequences’ would follow CPS lifting its mask mandate

CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said earlier this week that the mask requirement would be lifted “in the near future,” backtracking from a commitment to masks just days earlier.

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A man adjusts a boy’s face mask as they arrive at Jordan Community Public School in Rogers Park on the North Side, Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022

A man adjusts a boy’s face mask as they arrive at Jordan Community Public School in Rogers Park on the North Side, Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The Chicago Teachers Union is urging Mayor Lori Lightfoot to maintain Chicago Public Schools’ mask mandate for the time being, warning there will be “consequences” if the district doesn’t honor its January safety agreement with the union.

CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said earlier this week that the mask requirement would be lifted “in the near future,” backtracking from comments just days earlier in which he said students and staff will still have to wear face coverings this spring.

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The change of heart came hours after a March 10 court date was set in an ongoing legal battle waged by Republican attorney general candidate Tom DeVore and some Mount Greenwood parents that could see a judge issue a temporary restraining order against CPS’ mask mandate next week. If the judge were to grant the parents’ request, only their children would be allowed to go to school unmasked but officials fear the decision would hurt their ability to issue mandates in the future.

The CTU has argued its safety agreement, reached after five days of canceled classes during another round of hostile negotiations in January, means the district would have to negotiate any planned changes. The agreement requires face coverings through August.

“I find your plan to lift the CPS mask mandate in advance of the judge’s ruling extremely troubling, especially considering DeVore’s intrusion and motives, but more important, our collective struggle in January to reach an agreement,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey wrote Friday in a letter to Lightfoot. “Each round of negotiations between our union and your team has been a challenge, but we have emerged each time with agreements that improved safety conditions in our school buildings.

“Now, more than ever, we need a partner in the mayor’s office and Chicago Public Schools. We must put all of our support behind the residents of our city, because while we are no longer at odds with one another, we remain under attack by right-wing forces that want to disrupt the safety we have worked so hard to achieve.”

Sharkey expressed concern at unmasking kids when there are wide disparities between school communities’ vaccination rates, sentiments shared by Martinez and Board of Education members at last week’s school board meeting when they explained why they wanted to keep masks for now. If the mandate is to be removed, the union would demand increased access to CPS’ virtual academy and work-from-home accommodations for medically vulnerable students and staff.

“If CPS moves toward making masks optional without bargaining to do so safely, this refusal to honor our agreement will have consequences” on the health of school communities, Sharkey wrote.

The union said nearly 3,000 of its 25,000 members have responded to a survey sent out Tuesday about mask preferences, and a majority of respondents have said they want universal masking to remain.

Nearly all other Illinois districts have switched to mask optional policies this week, coinciding with the end of the state’s mandate.

CPS reiterated in a statement that it would “provide an update on our masking policies early next week.”

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