The Texas School Superintendent Who Defied Governor Abbott

Pedro Martinez is leaving San Antonio to become Chicago’s schools chief. He weighs in on his battles with Gov. Greg Abbott and why a student vaccine mandate should be “on the table.”

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For months, Pedro Martinez has been locked in a political battle over the safety of schools in Texas. As the superintendent in San Antonio, he defied Gov. Greg Abbott by issuing a mask mandate in schools. He was the only superintendent of a major Texas school district to require school employees to be vaccinated, prompting a lawsuit from the Texas attorney general.

Now, Mr. Martinez, 51, is heading to a more like-minded environment. He will lead Chicago Public Schools, the third-largest school system in the country — one that already mandates vaccines for employees, and requires masks in the classroom.

We caught up with Mr. Martinez on Friday for a wide-ranging conversation about his relationship with Governor Abbott, his position on vaccine mandates for students and his homecoming to Chicago, where he grew up. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

You were at the center of some of the biggest political fights over schools in Texas during the pandemic. Can you walk us through some of what happened behind the scenes?

We started the official first day of school on Aug. 9. We had more cases in the first week of school than we had in any week during last year’s pandemic. That immediately scared us. The majority of them were students. And even when we looked at the staff, we were starting to see breakthrough cases of vaccinated staff. So that’s what drove our decision to first have a mask mandate, and then we followed it up with a vaccine mandate.

I decided to do the vaccine mandate because the governor wouldn’t allow me to ask for vaccination proof for my staff. I said, we can’t manage through this pandemic if I don’t even have the basic information. To this date, we are the only district in Texas that has had this vaccine mandate. We are still fighting in court. So far, I’ve only had 10 staff out of 8,000 that have said, “I’m not going to get a vaccine.” We do have about 120 requests for exemptions for either medical or religious, but again, that is out of 8,000 employees.

Did you meet with Governor Abbott over the last year and a half?

We were all in a pandemic. There was very little done in terms of interaction. I have a huge respect for the state education commissioner. He and I have a great relationship. I was always giving him a heads-up whenever we were going to do something. But other than that, I never had any direct contact with the governor.

Did the political environment play a factor in your decision to leave?

No, not at all. Not so much about Covid. One of the factors that did play in me going back to Chicago, not only is it my hometown, but when I met Mayor Lori Lightfoot, I found that her values were aligned. She is a champion for our children in poverty, she is a champion for our children of color.

The last time we spoke, you expressed a need for “bold leadership” around coronavirus vaccines. So far, just one large school district — Los Angeles Unified — has required vaccines for students. Do you plan to mandate vaccines for students in Chicago?

It’s one of the things I really want to explore. I truly believe that should be done at the national level. If it is a world crisis — I don’t think it should be at the district level. We all know how important it is to have children in person in school. We all, for the most part, agree on that. So why shouldn’t there be some bold action at the national level?

Have you talked to the education secretary, Miguel Cardona, or the White House?

I have talked to their staff, but I will tell you, I will be talking to Secretary Cardona today. He is calling me to welcome me to Chicago.

Will you be bringing it up?

Yes I am.

Just to be clear: Are you a proponent of student vaccine mandates in Chicago?

I think it should be on the table.

One of your biggest challenges in Chicago will be navigating a contentious relationship between your new boss, Mayor Lightfoot, and the Chicago Teachers Union. What do you see as the major disagreements in that dispute? What do you personally plan to do to help resolve that?

I am not naive. I know there are some political divides that run very deep. But when it comes to, for example, the safety of our children, our children being in school in person, our schools being safe, there has to be common ground there.

You will be the first Latino chief executive of Chicago Public Schools, where Hispanic students make up nearly half of the student body. What is your message to them?

The amount of pride that I’ve seen, it’s just been very humbling for me. Chicago is a big immigrant family. There has been a lot of outreach from different families sharing their pride, and schools asking me to come visit with their children.

I want to be very clear. I am going to be very aggressive in my outreach to the African American community. The African American community in Chicago has always felt that they are frankly, second- or third-class citizens. I need to make sure coming in — whether I am Latino or not — to send a clear message that I am going to do everything in my power to ensure there is equity. I am going to be the champion for all children.

Understand Vaccine and Mask Mandates in the U.S.

Vaccine rules. On Aug. 23, the Food and Drug Administration granted full approval to Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine for people 16 and up, paving the way for an increase in mandates in both the public and private sectors. Private companies have been increasingly mandating vaccines for employees. Such mandates are legally allowed and have been upheld in court challenges.Mask rules. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July recommended that all Americans, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks in indoor public places within areas experiencing outbreaks, a reversal of the guidance it offered in May. See where the C.D.C. guidance would apply, and where states have instituted their own mask policies. The battle over masks has become contentious in some states, with some local leaders defying state bans.College and universities. More than 400 colleges and universities are requiring students to be vaccinated against Covid-19. Almost all are in states that voted for President Biden.Schools. Both California and New York City have introduced vaccine mandates for education staff. A survey released in August found that many American parents of school-age children are opposed to mandated vaccines for students, but were more supportive of mask mandates for students, teachers and staff members who do not have their shots. Hospitals and medical centers. Many hospitals and major health systems are requiring employees to get a Covid-19 vaccine, citing rising caseloads fueled by the Delta variant and stubbornly low vaccination rates in their communities, even within their work force.New York City. Proof of vaccination is required of workers and customers for indoor dining, gyms, performances and other indoor situations, although enforcement does not begin until Sept. 13. Teachers and other education workers in the city’s vast school system will need to have at least one vaccine dose by Sept. 27, without the option of weekly testing. City hospital workers must also get a vaccine or be subjected to weekly testing. Similar rules are in place for New York State employees.At the federal level. The Pentagon announced that it would seek to make coronavirus vaccinations mandatory for the country’s 1.3 million active-duty troops “no later” than the middle of September. President Biden announced that all civilian federal employees would have to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or submit to regular testing, social distancing, mask requirements and restrictions on most travel.

On a personal note, I’ve read that you have three sisters who are teachers in Chicago Public Schools, and you have something like 30 nieces and nephews in the system.

With my children, there are total of 30 grandchildren — 28 nephews and nieces. Some are babies and are future C.P.S. students, some are currently in C.P.S. as students today, and some are actually graduates already.

So how do your sisters feel about their brother becoming their new boss?

They are very proud, and I will just say this: They are staunch, staunch union supporters. One of my sisters had to defend me because it got a little negative in the C.T.U. Facebook website. My sister had to speak up and say, look, let me share with you who my brother is. I actually raised my two younger sisters — one of my siblings died in a car accident and it just decimated my parents — so I raised them from a young age. One of them is a kindergarten teacher and a staunch union supporter. She made it clear in her message that she’s all about the union — and in fact she said, look, I’ll help you hold him accountable — but give him a chance.

My colleagues in the Chicago bureau tell me I would be remiss if I didn’t ask this: Cubs or White Sox?

I am a Sox fan because I grew up with my dad going to Comiskey Park. Three dollars in the bleachers, and it was always on bat day, or cap day.

Deep dish or tavern-style pizza?

I like both, but I will say I like the tavern-style pizza.

We are in a critical moment in education, with so many million children needing support. If you could wave a magic wand today, what do you think is needed in this moment?

What I wish is if I could remove the anxiety of our staff and parents. Last year was a difficult year for everyone. A lot of mental health challenges. I am glad that schools are open this year and that classrooms have all of our children, but the anxiety is still there. That’s why I have been lobbying and advocating for more, bolder action at the national level, especially around vaccines.

We don’t know yet the ramifications that have occurred because of this pandemic to our children in poverty and of color. For example, my class of 2020, many of the children actually put on hold their college plans. We partnered with the city of San Antonio, and we’ve been able to reconnect hundreds of my graduates to make sure they go to college. But it took us having case managers. So I worry. How many students are in limbo because they decided to postpone college? What are the ramifications?

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