CPS will ‘strongly recommend’ masks for the new school year but won’t mandate them; Chicago remains at high COVID-19 level

CPS will ‘strongly recommend’ masks for the new school year but won’t mandate them; Chicago remains at high COVID-19 level

Chicago Public Schools will continue to “strongly recommend,” not require, masks for the upcoming school year, CEO Pedro Martinez said Wednesday.

Martinez said there will not be a lot of changes to the district’s COVID-19 protocols from the end of the last school year. CPS ditched its mask requirement in March amid a decrease in cases and legal pressure to end COVID-19 mitigations. Martinez said the district’s weekly, in-school testing program will continue, and take-home tests will be available to students as well.

“CPS will make decisions based on science and will rely on the expertise of our public health partners as we work to create the safest learning environments possible,” Martinez said.

The news from the monthly Chicago Board of Education meeting comes as Chicago’s risk level for COVID-19 is high. The Chicago Department of Public Health recommends people stay up to date with vaccines, wear a face mask in indoor public settings where vaccine status is not known and get tested if symptoms surface.

As of June 15, the end of the last school year, 54.4% of students in district-run schools and 45.5% of students in CPS schools not run by the district were fully vaccinated, according to CPS data. About 330,000 students were enrolled in CPS last year, making it the third-largest school district in the nation.

The district reported about 22,500 cases among 272,000 students in the last school year. The data doesn’t include CPS charter, contract and alternative learning students, of which there are 58,000.

On Wednesday, the board approved an $85 million contract with Fisher Scientific for the company to continue to provide COVID-19 testing supplies and services. Martinez said the district conducted 1.5 million COVID-19 tests last year through its in-school program, which was voluntary for students and mandatory for unvaccinated employees. Some 92% of CPS employees are vaccinated, district data shows. Students will have to sign up for the testing program in the new school year, Martinez said.

Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jackson Potter encouraged the board Wednesday to ramp up staffing in schools, especially of nurses.

“We do know recent studies suggest students who contract COVID — and there will be many more of them due to the new variants spread — that once they attract COVID, their mental health needs expand threefold. They will need more support by counselors, social workers, restorative personnel,” Potter said.

It’s unclear if CTU and CPS will reach a new COVID-19 safety agreement before the new school year. School is set to start Aug. 22, a week earlier than last year and two weeks before the traditional day-after-Labor Day kickoff to a new CPS school year.

The last CPS-CTU safety agreement was forged in January after CTU members voted to refuse in-person work amid a rise in COVID-19 cases.