Chicago Public Schools Is Masking Kids Again. Its Teachers' Union Wants More Restrictions.

City's teachers' union in legal battle to uphold universal masking policy

A masked elementary student / Getty Images
March 22, 2022

Amid a nearly imperceptible rise in COVID-19 cases, Chicago Public Schools returned to masking kids in K-12 classrooms, and its teachers' union is still pressing for further COVID restrictions.

The city's schools were among the last in the nation to drop universal mask mandates for children. Having promised to shift to a "mask-optional" policy on March 14, however, CPS published a flyer that says students must wear masks whenever visiting a school nurse, for at least 10 days after a COVID exposure, and for at least 5 days after a weeklong period of at-home learning. The Chicago Department of Public Health can also require an entire class to mask up at any point, the flyer reads, and CPS "may require masks again if community transmission reaches a moderate or high level."

The Chicago Tribune first reported the return to masking on Monday, writing that CPS and the city's health department had ordered parents of elementary school children to mask their children due to a recent classroom exposure.

Studies have shown children are at very low risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19. In-school transmission is also "extremely rare," according to a peer-reviewed study done by the American Academy of Pediatrics in January 2021.

The news comes as the Chicago Teachers Union agitates for a return to universal masking as part of a safety deal it signed with the city in January. Alleged violations of that deal, which ended in a five-day cancellation of classes citywide, prompted the teachers' union to appeal to the state's Educational Labor Relations Board. The board declined the union's request for an emergency injunction but will hear its complaint in June. The safety agreement between the city and teachers' union expires in August.

The safety agreement states all schools must universally mask students and provide universal testing. Any school may also flip to remote learning provided at least 30 percent of teachers are absent for at least two days or at least 40 percent of students have been told to quarantine by the city's health department.

Cook County, which encompasses Chicago's school districts, is at low risk of community spread, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The public health agency recently changed its metrics for tracking community transmission of COVID, opting to give a locality's hospitalizations more weight than case counts in its recommendations.

In a statement issued Saturday, CPS said its guidance will accord with the Chicago Department of Public Health, the Illinois Department of Public Health, and the CDC, without noting the different metrics used by each public health entity. According to its website, CPS tracks only COVID case counts, and the city's health department gives no weight to one metric over another.

Resignations and retirements of CPS staff have more than doubled in the last year when compared with the previous fiscal year. Nearly 85 percent of the departures have been teachers.