After about 40 COVID-19 cases were detected at an elementary school in Chicago's Streeterville neighborhood, officials brought back a mask requirement for students and staff.
"We did have about 40 cases during the month and we actually did the contact tracing and it was all [from] outside events," Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinz said in a press conference Tuesday. "In some cases, some of those students were together and so...the good news it the quarantine has been small."
According to Martinz, 15 students are currently quarantining at Coonley Elementary School due to the coronavirus outbreak. Martinez noted that the school is one of CPS' largest with almost 90% of students vaccinated.
Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said the health department continues to track COVID outbreaks and clusters "of any kind," adding that other non-CPS schools have similarly seen increased cases.
"Sometimes it's spread outside, but when we're seeing multiple, multiple cases in a setting, that is the time, like I said, the masks work right away," Arwady said.
If COVID cases continue to increase, could a mask mandate return to CPS schools?
Martinez explained that CPS officials work with CDPH to study transmissibility levels across the city. Should Chicago again move into a higher risk level, Martinez and Arwady said CPS would consider putting the district-wide mask mandate back in place.
"Any setting is welcome to be more conservative than the requirement, but that factor is a combination of case rates, hospitalization rates and, you know, those severe outcomes," Arwady said.
CPS lifted its mask mandate last week, beginning a new mask-optional policy for both students and staff in schools across the city.
Parents, students and employees have a choice on whether or not they wear a mask on school property and other school locations, though the district said it will continue to encourage their use.
“CPS was one of the first to require universal masking in schools, and we would not be moving to a mask- optional model unless the data and our public health experts indicated that it is safe for our school communities,” Martinez said in a statement. “We will support our staff and students as we enter this new phase in the pandemic and continue to move forward together.”
Citing vaccination rates and new CDC guidelines for the change, the district said masks will continue to be encouraged despite being optional.
“The adults in our school communities will set the tone during this transition,” Chief Education Officer Bogdana Chkoumbova said in a statement. “I am confident that we will continue to support and respect one another through this next phase of the pandemic. Family and community situations may change and dictate if a student or staff member wears a mask and we all need to ensure that everyone feels welcome to continue the practice that makes them feel safest and most comfortable.”
CPS' mask mandate was part of an agreement reached between city officials and the Chicago Teachers Union earlier this year. The union called the district's decision to lift the requirement a "clear violation" of the duo's 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 — a decision that impacts nearly 400,000 students, educators and school staffers in Chicago," the union said in a release Monday.
Illinois ended its requirement of face masks in schools at the end of February, as announced by Gov. J.B. Pritzker after the Illinois Supreme Court denied his appeal of a restraining order in a lawsuit challenging the mask mandate.
In a statement, Pritzker explained Illinois will move forward to remove its school mask mandate after the Centers for Disease Control updated guidance to recommend masks only in areas of high COVID transmission.
Last month, the governor and Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul said the state will ask the Illinois Supreme Court to review an appellate court decision making masks optional in school settings, noting the ruling failed "to address important legal issues."