The mask mandate returns to six Chicago Public Schools classrooms amid COVID-19 spike at school

Brenna O’Brien, a parent of a second grader and a fourth grader at Chicago’s John C. Coonley Elementary School, wasn’t sure over the weekend what she’s going to do Monday when her kids were supposed to be back in their classrooms.

They’d lost four days of instruction due to illness.

“I’ve repeatedly tested them — we’ve done PCR tests — and it’s just repeatedly been negative,” she said Saturday evening after receiving an email from Coonley’s principal, Brennen Humphrey, with news that more than one person in her fourth grader’s homeroom tested positive for COVID-19.

The email said, “If you are receiving this message, the Chicago Department of Public Health and CPS are requiring your child in (that homeroom) to wear a mask for 10 days from their last potential exposure, or through March 24, 2022.”

Six Coonley classrooms have reverted to universal masking, a Chicago Public Schools spokesperson confirmed, amid a spike in cases at the school.

The pivot back to required masking in the Coonley classrooms is apparently the first in CPS since it dropped its universal mask mandate a week ago, though it continues to recommend masks. After announcing that shift, CPS later clarified that masks would still be required in certain circumstances, such as when someone is exposed to a person with COVID-19.

“I’m assuming if you come from this homeroom, you have to wear your mask throughout the entire school building, and there might be other parents that don’t like that. I am curious to see what’s going to happen next. Are there going to be parents that try to fight that?” asked O’Brien, an activist and writer who has been critical of CPS’ handling of the pandemic and has backed parent “sickouts” to seek more COVID-19 safety measures in schools.

O’Brien said she’s been following data on cases in the district and that, coupled with reports of waning vaccination effectiveness for children ages five to 11, has her concerns about how much farther cases will spread this week. There were 448 students in quarantine districtwide as of Sunday, including 29 students at Coonley, per the CPS COVID data tracker. The school has had 40 positive cases since the start of March.

“It’s such an easy thing to wear a mask on your face and the benefit is so great. We’re trying to stop a pandemic,” said O’Brien, who later confirmed she did decide to send her children to school Monday. “Take it off when you get home. Take it off when you’re at the park. Why are we fighting so hard for our children who are like 30 a room to not wear masks? It does not make sense to me.”

The Chicago Teachers Union has also fought the end of universal masking, saying it’s a breach of a safety agreement forged after a January standoff that prompted the cancellation of five days of classes. The state’s Educational Labor Relations Board last week narrowly declined the CTU’s request for an emergency injunction as the union’s complaint is considered.

But many parents had pushed for and have welcomed the end of CPS’ mask mandate; some participated in a lawsuit that prompted school systems around the state to ditch the requirement.

In response to questions about Coonley, a CPS spokesperson released a statement Saturday saying the district is “monitoring case numbers closely, along with the CDPH, and last week, increased our voluntary on-site COVID-19 testing at Coonley from one to two days. We will continue to keep the school community informed of any new information.”

The statement also said CPS “has made the health and safety of our students and staff our highest priority since the onset of the pandemic. Every health and safety measure implemented has been in accordance with the guidance of the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH), the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).”

O’Brien, of Lincoln Square, said she feels 80% of parents fall in the middle of the mask mandate debate and are not strong for or against it.

“The majority of parents will just go with the message that they’re being told and right now the message from the district, the state, the White House is ease up and be mask optional, even though many medical professionals see the next wave coming,” O’Brien said. “I’m hoping we’ll make it to summer and be OK. But, I really don’t know.”

CPS cited a decline in cases and test positivity as reasons why it made masks optional for students and staff members even as it faces opposition from the CTU. A hearing on the CTU complaint had been set for June, around the time the school year will end, but has now been moved to April. The union safety deal is set to expire in August.

CPS — the largest school district in Illinois, with about 330,000 students — was one of the last locally to transition to a mask-optional policy even as Chicago lifted its mandate for most indoor spaces and the statewide school mask requirement ended amid new guidance from the CDC.

Tribune reporter Tracy Swartz contributed.