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Chicago Public Schools drop mask requirement in classrooms

March 7, 2022 GMT
FILE - A student skips as they arrive at Jordan Community Public School Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022 in Chicago. Chicago Public Schools will stop requiring face masks for staff and students in the nation's third-largest school district starting March 14, officials announced Monday, March 7, 2022. (Ashlee Rezin /Chicago Sun-Times via AP File)
FILE - A student skips as they arrive at Jordan Community Public School Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022 in Chicago. Chicago Public Schools will stop requiring face masks for staff and students in the nation's third-largest school district starting March 14, officials announced Monday, March 7, 2022. (Ashlee Rezin /Chicago Sun-Times via AP File)
FILE - A student skips as they arrive at Jordan Community Public School Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022 in Chicago. Chicago Public Schools will stop requiring face masks for staff and students in the nation's third-largest school district starting March 14, officials announced Monday, March 7, 2022. (Ashlee Rezin /Chicago Sun-Times via AP File)
FILE - A student skips as they arrive at Jordan Community Public School Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022 in Chicago. Chicago Public Schools will stop requiring face masks for staff and students in the nation's third-largest school district starting March 14, officials announced Monday, March 7, 2022. (Ashlee Rezin /Chicago Sun-Times via AP File)
FILE - A student skips as they arrive at Jordan Community Public School Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022 in Chicago. Chicago Public Schools will stop requiring face masks for staff and students in the nation's third-largest school district starting March 14, officials announced Monday, March 7, 2022. (Ashlee Rezin /Chicago Sun-Times via AP File)

CHICAGO (AP) — Chicago Public Schools will stop requiring face masks for staff and students in the nation’s third-largest school district starting March 14, officials announced Monday.

The district said the change applies inside school buildings, on school property and on school buses, though students and employees will still be encouraged to wear masks.

“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,” CEO Pedro Martinez said in a statement.

Martinez also pointed to other large school districts’ decision to stop requiring face masks in recent weeks, including New York City on Monday.

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He said the district will continue to encourage masking in Chicago, “especially in schools with lower vaccination rates and among those students and staff who feel most comfortable with a face covering.”

According to a letter sent to parents, 91% of staff members are fully vaccinated. Among students, 64% of those between the ages of 12 and 17 have received at least one vaccination dose and 47% between the ages of 5 and 11 years old have received at least one dose.

The district’s announcement drew immediate pushback Monday from the Chicago Teachers Union, whose members refused to teach in-person in January, prompting five days of canceled classes during negotiations over COVID-19 protocols.

In a statement, union officials called the change “a clear violation” of the agreement that ended the standoff and said the union plans to file an unfair labor practice charge with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board.

The charge argues that the district’s decision puts “the health and safety of the entire CPS community at risk of infection, hospitalization and death” and asks that the state board order the district to bargain any changes to safety procedures.

“Our city is fortunate that the numbers around the COVID-19 pandemic have shifted, with deaths, hospitalizations and positive cases low,” the union’s statement said. “But CPS buildings are congregate settings where vaccination rates also remain low, especially in schools with majority Black and Brown students on the South and West sides of the city.”