The great mask debate continues on CPS’s first mask optional day

Monday was the first day Chicago Public School students were allowed to go without a mask in more than a year.

WBEZ
Most students at McAuliffe Elementary, a Chicago public school, on the North Side wore masks on Monday even as they became optional for the first time. Susie An / WBEZ
WBEZ
Most students at McAuliffe Elementary, a Chicago public school, on the North Side wore masks on Monday even as they became optional for the first time. Susie An / WBEZ

The great mask debate continues on CPS’s first mask optional day

Monday was the first day Chicago Public School students were allowed to go without a mask in more than a year.

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Martha Rodea’s daughter wanted her kindergarten teacher to see her whole face on Monday, the first time in more than a year that Chicago Public Schools students could maskless in class.

But Rodea wants all three of her children to mask up at school.

“She did tell me ‘Mom … I want to smile at my teachers. I want them to see me smile,” Rodea said as she picked her children up Monday from McAuliffe Elementary in the Hermosa neighborhood on the Northwest side.

“But I still told her that it’s best for her health and for her grandma. Her grandma is high risk. If she gets sick, the last thing I want is for her to end up in the hospital because of something that we could’ve prevented.”

Most students at McAuliffe kept their masks on Monday, with many still masked outside after dismissal. It was the same story at Washington Irving Elementary on the Near West Side. The masked students included some who were fully vaccinated against COVID-19, including Rodea’s kids. They are among the third of students at McAuliffe who are fully vaccinated. At Irving, about 21 percent of the students are vaccinated.

“It makes me feel horrible,” Irving parent Christie Ray said about the school vaccination rate. She was adamant about sending her daughter masked to school. “That’s why I [tell] my children ‘COVID is still here, keep your face mask on.’”

Among CPS elementary school students, 37% of students are fully vaccinated as of Feb. 22, according to data obtained by WBEZ. As of March 7, CPS said 49% of all students were fully vaccinated.

A few students who went maskless at McAuliffe on Monday said they encountered no problems. Some middle schoolers said they only wore masks because their parents made them.

Chicago Public Schools is among the last school districts in the state to go mask optional. The vast majority of districts ended their mandates in February following a series of legal actions challenging the requirement.

“I like how they made it optional so kids weren’t forced to wear masks,” said Kevin Harris, a McAuliffe fifth grader and one of the few kids who went maskless.

His mother said the family decided Kevin didn’t need to wear a mask as a way of returning to normal. “I still feel COVID is real and it’s still out here, but things are slowly moving forward,” Vanessa Harris said.

The governor on Feb. 28 ended the state’s mandate after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stopped recommending masks in schools in areas of low transmission, such as Chicago. CPS officials also made clear the switch to mask optional was prompted by an effort by a downstate lawyer to block CPS’s mandate.

The Chicago Teachers Union says CPS can’t end the mandate without bargaining with them, citing the agreement reached with the school district in January that calls for universal masking. The union has filed an unfair labor practice charge against CPS with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board. It is on Wednesday’s agenda. The union is asking for injunctive relief to compel CPS to keep the mandate to remain in place while the charge is being resolved.

If the board sides with the CTU on Wednesday, the case for injunctive relief will be heard in Cook County Circuit Court. A judge would decide whether to reimpose CPS’s mask mandate. The timing on that is unclear but it would likely move fairly quickly. The state labor relations board doesn’t have the power to grant injunctive relief.

WBEZ
Most students at CPS’s Washington Irving Elementary school continued to wear masks on Monday. ‘Sometimes with masks it’s hard to breathe, but it’s still better than being at risk of catching COVID,’ said 11-year-old Patrick Stephens (center). Anna Savchenko / WBEZ

The school district also is facing another legal effort by the same lawyer who filed the other CPS lawsuit and other suits against COVID-19 mandates in schools, Tom DeVore. He is representing six teachers who are trying to block the district from requiring school staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or to submit to weekly testing. A hearing is scheduled for Tuesday afternoon. CPS said in a statement last week that its safety protocols serve the best interest of staff and will remain in place for now. It says 91% of staff members are vaccinated.

CPS and the city’s public health officials say the switch follows public health guidance and they will return to masks if the pandemic worsens. Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady last week said she wants masks “at least” for unvaccinated people if the city reaches the CDC’s medium risk level. If the risk was high, she would recommend masks for all, as per CDC guidance.

The percentage of students vaccinated was not a factor in choosing whether to lift the mandate.

Those rates vary dramatically across the city and less than half of all students are fully vaccinated at nearly 75% of schools, the WBEZ analysis of CPS vaccination data shows.

And at nearly 50 schools, 10% of students or less are fully vaccinated as of Feb. 22, according to a WBEZ analysis. Schools on the South and West sides continue to post particularly low rates.

Vanessa Harris, the McAuliffe mother, said she and her son are not vaccinated yet and she wouldn’t want it to be a requirement for next school year.

“I didn’t really agree with [that],” she said at school pick-up on Monday. “I feel like it should have been everyone’s decision. I feel like a lot of people lost jobs. That was pretty bad … Even with the vaccination, you can still get sick.”

Susie An covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @soosieon.

Reporter Anna Savchenko covers higher education for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation and @annasavchenkoo.

Kate Grossman is WBEZ’s education editor. Follow her @WBEZeducation and @KateGrossman1