Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady speaks while Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez listens during a press conference where they gave an update about COVID-19 infections and protocols in Chicago Public Schools at City Hall in the Loop, Thursday morning, Sept. 30, 2021. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

As of Wednesday, 86% of CPS employees have submitted proof of vaccination, district records show.

Chicago Public Schools workers who aren’t fully vaccinated by the city’s deadline at the end of the week can instead undergo weekly COVID-19 testing until they get their shots, the district announced Wednesday in an about-face that aligns with watered-down mandates for other city employees.

The change came shortly after three unions representing CPS workers, including the Chicago Teachers Union, wrote a letter to Mayor Lori Lightfoot urging the city not to place unvaccinated school employees on unpaid leave if they didn’t meet the deadline. As of Wednesday, 86% of CPS employees have submitted proof of vaccination, district records show.

The unions cited the testing option given to other city workers such as cops, who remain in a public battle with the mayor over the mandate that Fraternal Order of Police President John Catanzara recently compared to Nazi Germany. Catanzara this week told his members not to comply with the requirement or submit their vaccination status to the city.

Though Lightfoot had been highly critical of Catanzara’s comments, she had given officers the option for weekly testing while, until Wednesday, had said any school employees who aren’t fully vaccinated would be placed on unpaid leave and potentially disciplined. Now those repercussions will only come for any city employee who doesn’t submit proof of vaccination or agree to testing.

“This disparate enforcement of the vaccine policy will leave schools dangerously understaffed, and disproportionately impact employees of color within CPS,” the CTU, SEIU Local 73 and SEIU Local 1 wrote in their letter to the mayor before the updated policy was announced.

“We want every one of our members who can safely be vaccinated, to get vaccinated. But surely you are aware that our schools confront desperate shortages of staff, from janitors and bus aides, to substitute teachers and school nurses. Punitive enforcement of the vaccination policy in its current form will be ineffectual and will further destabilize already understaffed schools.”

A CTU spokeswoman said the unions believed the reasoning for the majority of their unvaccinated members not yet getting shots had more to do with hesitancy than politics, and that the unions remained steadfast in their commitment to getting all their members vaccinated.

The progressive CTU is often at odds with the conservative FOP and would be highly sensitive to comparisons to the police union or the appearance of alignment in their views on vaccines.

CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said at a press conference Wednesday that he would focus on engaging with unvaccinated employees to better understand why they hadn’t gotten their shots and help nudge them in the right direction.

“I feel fairly confident, just based on how high our percentage is, that it’s not going to be a big issue in our district,” he said.

Asked if there was a new deadline, like the Dec. 31 date for other city workers, Martinez said the delay is not “indefinite.” His aim will also be for all CPS employees to be fully vaccinated the end of the calendar year, he said, but a hard deadline won’t necessarily be set for now.

Martinez was particularly concerned with new cases around the holidays, when families and staff might travel and see family members in settings that are prone to transmission. So the district will make a push for both staff and students to get shots by that time, he said.

Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said she expects vaccinations to become available for kids aged 5-11 sometime in November, potentially in time for those children to get inoculated before the holidays.

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