Chicago schools will remain mask-optional as city COVID risk level increases to ‘medium’

Senn High School seniors work on computers in a history class on the first week back to classrooms for students on April 23, 2021.
Chicago Public Schools will remain mask-optional even as the city and county are seeing an uptick in COVID-19 cases. (Max Herman for Chalkbeat)

Chicago Public Schools will remain mask-optional even as the city and county are seeing an uptick in COVID-19 cases.

The country’s third largest school district will not reinstate its mask mandate for the time being, but officials said it would continue its current stance of encouraging – but not requiring – masking. 

The city’s risk of COVID-19 transmission moved from low to medium last week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention transmission rating system. The increase prompted local health and school leaders to urge people to wear masks, especially those who have yet to be vaccinated.

“CPS will continue strongly encouraging the use of masks in our schools, especially among our unvaccinated students, and especially when cases are rising,” CEO Pedro Martinez said in a letter to parents on Friday.

Asked whether a mask mandate would be reinstated, a spokesperson said the district would continue to follow the Chicago Department of Public Health’s guidance.

The health department on Friday issued a statement strongly encouraging masking indoors including in schools and public transportation.

“It’s not a cause for alarm, since most cases right now are mild and thankfully our COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths remain at or near all-time pandemic lows in Chicago,” said Dr. Allison Arwady, the city’s Health Commissioner.  

The move from low to medium at this time will not trigger a citywide mask mandate, restrictions on public gatherings, or reinstatement of vaccination requirements, Arwady said in a statement.

Such measures would be considered if the city moved from medium to high risk, Arwady said. 

Last week, the district recorded 1,403 students and 480 staff positive cases between May 1 and May 7 — an increase from the previous week when 823 students and 324 staff tested positive between April 24 and April 30, according to district figures. 

The positivity rate for school-based testing is shy of 1%, according to the district.

The city is currently averaging 788 new cases with a 4.4% positivity rate, data shows.

In March, the district moved to lift its mask mandate, aligning itself with updated CDC guidance, which in late February recommended that school districts drop mask mandates unless COVID cases and hospitalizations in their region were high.

Under current policy, students and staff who test positive are required to wear masks for five days after being in quarantine for five days. 

At the time, the district’s move to lift its mask mandate was met with a mixed reaction from parents on either side of the debate.

Following the announcement, the Chicago Teachers Union argued that lifting the mask mandate violated a safety agreement requiring masking through the end of the school year. The agreement was forged after district officials canceled five days of classes in January when teachers walked out over safety concerns amid the rise of COVID-19 cases across the city.  

In his letter to parents, Martinez encouraged the Chicago Public Schools community to get vaccinated to “slow of the spread” and return to low-risk category.

“CPS will continue doing everything possible to provide all students with the safe, in-person learning environment they need and deserve,” Martinez said. 

Mauricio Peña is a reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago, covering K-12 schools. Contact Mauricio at mpena@chalkbeat.org.

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