The Chicago Teachers Union filed an unfair labor practice lawsuit against Chicago Public Schools. The suit claims that CPS violated the current safety agreement by dropping the mask mandate. CTU members voted for an in-person work stoppage during the omicron surge earlier this year. The two parties reached a deal that included the mask mandate remaining in place for the entirety of the school year.
CPS announced that they would drop the current mask mandate beginning Monday, March 14. Students and staff will now have the option to go without a mask. CTU released a statement immediately following the announcement.
“The decision by Mayor Lori Lightfoot and her Chicago Public Schools team to unilaterally remove the mask mandate starting March 14, 2022, is a clear violation of our January 12, 2022, Memorandum of Agreement. Our union will immediately be filing an unfair labor practice (ULP) charge against the district in response and requesting that CPS bargain over this decision. This decision impacts nearly 400,000 students, educators, and school staffers in Chicago.”
CTU acknowledged that the numbers had improved but noted that vaccination rates in CPS buildings and schools are low. The union pointed out that schools on the West and Southside of Chicago have the lowest rates of vaccinations, putting those populations at greater risk.
CTU Vice President Stacy Davis-Gates said she hopes they can sit down and start talks to reach an agreement. “The duty to negotiate is not just a labor right—it is a health and safety right that all the humans need in this city,” stated Davis-Gates.
Under the current safety agreement reached in January, the mask mandate was to stay in place until summer. This would allow more time for students aged 5-17 to receive the vaccine.
Less than half of all CPS students have received the vaccine, and children under age 5 are not yet eligible. Davis-Gates expressed concern for students and staff once the mandate is lifted, saying, “It is a fact that we have immunocompromised students and workers who are going to need more than just a ‘good luck’ from our mayor.”
Chicago Public Schools Chief Executive Officer Pedro Martinez spoke about his earlier discussions with the Chicago Teachers Union about dropping the mandate. “I don’t anticipate, you know, more serious consequences in terms of work stoppages,” he said, “But we will continue to work together because we have it in both our best interests to keep our community safe.”
Martinez and Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady noted the increasing number of student vaccination rates along with the recent decrease in positive COVID-19 cases as validation for lifting the mask mandate. Arwady expressed confidence in the direction the state is going, saying, “I remain very confident about where we are right now as a region, as a city, and as a state.”
Martinez said that the improved COVID-19 health statistics played a considerable role in dropping the current mask mandate. He went on to express concern about the sustainability of requiring masks in the future. Dr. Arwady, however, pointed out that CPS can reinstate the mask mandate in the event of another surge.
Paula J. Shelton is a freelance writer and journalist based in Chicago. Find her on social @beboldshineon.