Chicago schools mandating masks regardless of COVID-19 vaccine status

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By NOAH SHEAR
Illinois Policy

Chicago Public Schools announced July 22 all students and staff must wear masks inside schools for the fall semester, and it doesn’t matter whether a person has received a COVID-19 vaccination.

The schools will permit students and staff to remove masks only while outside and during meals.

A week prior to CPS’s decision, public health experts at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told schools vaccinated staff and students no longer needed masks indoors. The Illinois Department of Public Health followed that guidance, issuing similar recommendations.

School districts in Illinois are struggling with the mask question, trying to decide whether there is enough health benefit in a low-transmission population to warrant the emotional and developmental costs of making students wear masks. Some school districts use the CDC’s guidelines, asking only the unvaccinated to wear masks. Some, like CPS, have adopted full mask mandates, a stricter masking requirement than Illinois’s Phase 5 policies for other public buildings.

“Students with significant behavioral challenges and some of our medically fragile students with physical handicaps often cannot wear a mask or keep them on their faces independently,” said Kim Breust Neilson, a school social worker in Lake in the Hills, Illinois. “COVID-19 restrictions and masking policies completely go against what we have taught kids for decades about cooperation and have disproportionately affected these special needs populations and left them without appropriate services.”

Also in their announcement, CPS will follow the CDC’s and the IDPH’s distancing policy: three-feet social distancing. To uphold three-feet social distancing, only a limited amount of children will be allowed to eat lunch and breakfast in the cafeteria. Most of the students must eat in the classrooms.

As of July 21, two-thirds of CPS students weren’t eligible for the vaccines because they were under age 12. A third of 12- to 17-year-old children in Chicago are fully vaccinated; around 47% of 12- to 17-year-olds in Chicago have had at least one dose of the vaccine.

Recently, the Chicago Teachers Union issued a laundry list of requests that must be satisfied by CPS before teachers will agree to return to the classroom. In their request, the CTU asked for six-feet social distancing, 80% vaccination rates, and masking regardless of vaccination. The union also demanded about 4,200 new hires.

The CTU agreed with CPS’s recent mask ruling, issuing a statement on Twitter: “If both the science and the directives from federal, city and state agencies say that layered mitigation [i.e. universal masking] will keep school communities more safe, then this is what the district must do to keep children 12 and under, and their families, more safe.”

“Continuing to require masks will help make sure those in our school communities who are not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, which encompasses the majority of our students, remain as safe as possible,” wrote Jose Torres, interim CEO of CPS, in an email to parents. CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union defended a universal mask mandate because they said it will maximize safety.

Still, many residents fear the psychological and educational repercussions of a mask mandate. The Madison County Board in southwestern Illinois asked all school districts in the county to allow parents to decided whether to cover their children’s faces with masks. In the non-binding resolution, the county board wrote the Madison County Board of Health “recognizes that requiring children to wear masks can interfere with their education and ability to communicate with teachers and fellow students.”

While masking and distancing might have been considered beneficial in the beginning of the pandemic, more than a year into it there are now known costs to students from masking and distancing. Both their mental health and educational development can suffer.

“Emotional mimicry, contagion, and emotionality in general are reduced and (thereby) bonding between teachers and learners, group cohesion, and learning ­­– of which emotions are a major driver,” concluded Manfred Spitzer, a neuroscientist and psychiatrist, in a recent study.

In the effort to limit COVID-19’s spread during 2020, students in Illinois lost a stable educational environment. This school year will bring new challenges as districts and parents are faced with weighing risks versus benefits of masks and other COVID-19 protocols, but in Chicago parents will have no choice.

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