The majority of students at most Chicago schools are unvaccinated as CPS plans to lift mask mandate

CPS will go mask optional on March 14. Vax rates are climbing, but only a quarter of schools have more than half of all students vaccinated.

WBEZ
Kindergartener Sebastian Perez gets his second COVID-19 shot from Nina Kadri at Theodore Roosevelt High School in the Albany Park neighborhood on Feb. 9, 2022. The number of younger CPS students who are fully vaccinated still remains relatively low. Marc Monaghan / WBEZ
WBEZ
Kindergartener Sebastian Perez gets his second COVID-19 shot from Nina Kadri at Theodore Roosevelt High School in the Albany Park neighborhood on Feb. 9, 2022. The number of younger CPS students who are fully vaccinated still remains relatively low. Marc Monaghan / WBEZ

The majority of students at most Chicago schools are unvaccinated as CPS plans to lift mask mandate

CPS will go mask optional on March 14. Vax rates are climbing, but only a quarter of schools have more than half of all students vaccinated.

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Less than half of all students are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 at nearly 75% of all Chicago public schools, with schools on the South and West sides continuing to post particularly low rates, new data shows.

And at nearly 50 schools, 10% of students or less are fully vaccinated as of Feb. 22, according to a WBEZ analysis of vaccination data for the district’s nearly 650 schools.

This new data comes as Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez on Monday said masks will become optional on March 14. CPS said will it continue to encourage the use of masks, especially in schools with lower vaccination rates. Though COVID-19 cases have dropped in recent weeks, and the student vaccination rate has grown over time, the disparity in vaccination rates is a major concern as CPS is poised to lift its mask requirement.

The Chicago Teachers Union opposes lifting the mandate. Just hours after the school district’s announcement, the union announced it is filing an unfair labor practice complaint against the district, demanding that it bargain over this decision.

Martinez was under pressure to go mask optional because of a motion filed last week to block universal masking in CPS. A hearing was scheduled for Thursday. But the downstate lawyer behind that effort said on Monday that he was dropping his bid for a temporary restraining order in light of CPS’ decision. A similar legal effort last month prompted most school districts in Illinois to make masks optional. CPS is among only a handful of districts in the state still requiring masks.

Some parents who have been calling for a mask optional policy said it shouldn’t be contingent on vaccination rates. They said with cases so low in CPS and the city, now is the time to give families and children the option to choose whether to mask up.

“We are talking about mask optional, not talking about banning masks like some other states,” said Ryan Griffin, a member of the Chicago Parents Collective, a group of parents formed last year to advocate for a return to in-person learning. “Parents are perplexed why public health guidance shouldn’t apply to their children. Plain and simple.”

But many in Chicago point to the huge range in vaccination rates as a reason to continue mandatory masking. Some 34% of schools still have fewer than quarter of all students fully vaccinated.

On Monday, CPS said the overall vaccination rate was up to 49%. In the month from Jan. 18 to Feb. 22, the percentage of fully vaccinated students increased by 10 percentage points, to 44%, according to WBEZ’s analysis. Vaccination rates among elementary children rose from 23% to 37%, and among high school students, from 56% to 59%. The vaccination rates for CPS students are lower than those for children in the city as a whole, but are better than national averages, especially for younger students.

The increases were most pronounced in schools with primarily Asian and Latino students on the North and Northwest sides. The gains were smallest in schools serving Black students, WBEZ found. The schools with mostly white students continue to have the highest vaccine rates, with an average of nearly 70% fully vaccinated.

WBEZ also identified an issue with students failing to get their second dose. While an additional 34,000 students got one dose of the vaccination in the last month, getting a second dose is not a sure thing. WBEZ found 7,400 students, or about 23% of those who were reported to have one shot in mid-January, who were not reported to have a second shot five weeks later. CPS did not refute this figure, but said that could partly be due to data reporting issues.

City and school district leaders insist they are going to great lengths to get students vaccinated, from hosting 849 clinics, including at schools, to offering at-home vaccinations. CPS officials also have said they are working on a campaign to tackle vaccination hesitancy, which they say is now the biggest obstacle.

“CPS has worked with its partners to assure parents that vaccines are safe and offer the best protection against COVID-19 and dispel any myths,” CPS spokesperson Mary Fergus said in a statement. “Additionally, CPS has supported community partners by co-authoring grants that support vaccine events in targeted communities” on the far South, West and Southwest sides.

Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates acknowledged some parents just don’t want to get their kids vaccinated. But she said many of the clinics held at schools are not well-planned or communicated.

“There is not always enough lead time,” she said. “You have to have a system that will catch parents and communicate with them.”

Under the January agreement with the CTU, the school district promised to pay school staff to reach out to families to try to convince them to get vaccinated. But the union doesn’t know to what extent that is happening because it says CPS isn’t able to provide detailed information.

“It feels like there is a lack of urgency,” said Jen Johnson, chief of staff for the CTU. Johnson said she’s concerned the window to convince families is slipping away as some may think it’s less important now that COVID-19 cases are low.

The low student vaccination rate is a main reason why the union wants to maintain the mask mandate.

On Monday, the union said going mask optional without bargaining will have serious health and safety consequences. They want the school district to allow more students to attend a virtual academy, which has been limited to medically fragile children, and allow additional accommodations for medically vulnerable staff.

The union also wants the district to develop a clear safety plan for preschoolers under the age of 5 who aren’t eligible to be vaccinated and to put in place a metric for reinstituting the mask requirement in case the pandemic worsens. It also wants the school district to “ensure no one is stigmatized for wearing a mask.”

In a statement, Fergus also said that “CPS is committed to continuing to bargaining with CTU to reach a workable solution.”

Fergus also CPS’ mask optional announcement is in “everyone’s best interest — including our partners in labor. … Rather than wait to have this decision thrust upon us by people outside of CPS and in ways that might ignore CPS’ unique circumstances, the CEO acted swiftly so that his autonomy to make prudent health decisions based on what’s happening in CPS communities would not be affected going forward.”

Davis Gates also went after Tom DeVore, the downstate lawyer who was representing the CPS families seeking to block CPS’ mask mandate, and urged the mayor to work with them to “fend off outsiders.”

Davis Gates, in a letter to members on Thursday, said “DeVore and his cronies … are targeting face masks in a school district where 1) the majority of our students aren’t vaccinated, and 2) live in Black and Brown ZIP codes where the majority of their neighbors are not vaccinated either.”

Dr. Brittani M. James, medical director for the Inner-City Muslim Action Network Health Center on the South Side, said lifting of the mask mandate in the face of low vaccination rates indicates that the school district is not interested in protecting the most vulnerable.

“I feel like it is reckless and shortsighted,” she said. “I think this is a clear example of politics having its hand in public health.”

At her clinic, which offers the COVID-19 vaccine, she said most people have already been vaccinated or have already made up their mind not to get the shot.

As recently as last week, Chicago Board of Education member Elizabeth Todd Breland pointed to the disparate vaccination rates as a reason not to lift the mask requirement.

“To just be very clear about who has been most impacted by this pandemic: Disproportionately, that has been Black, brown and low income communities,” she said. “That is the majority of the people who entrust their children to the system and so those are the students who we need to be protecting.”

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.