Chicago Public Schools nearing COVID-19 testing goal, CEO says, after slow start to in-school screening program

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Chicago Public Schools is nearing its goal of being able to test 10% of unvaccinated students at each district-run school through its free, weekly COVID-19 testing program, CEO Pedro Martinez said Tuesday.

“We are making sure that across our 515 schools that we have a minimum of 10% of students (who) are unvaccinated ... giving us consent for testing,” Martinez said at a news conference. “I can tell you right now that we’re now close to 90% of hitting that target, so our focus is going to be to get to 100%.”

Access to COVID-19 testing was a major sticking point in the disagreement between CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union that led to classes being canceled for five days this month. In its final proposal to the union, CPS said it will work with CTU to increase student participation in the school-based testing program and districtwide vaccination initiative with the goal of 100% participation by Feb. 1.

The district is not close to having all its kids vaccinated or registered for the testing program, which has been voluntary for students and mandatory for unvaccinated staff members.

CPS said Tuesday more than 87,000 students signed up for testing, up from about 42,000 students in late December. The district administered some 53,000 tests last week — the most of the school year — after a slow start to the program. Around 270,000 students are enrolled in district-run schools.

As part of its agreement with CTU, CPS said it would focus its efforts on registering students at schools that were testing fewer than 10% of students in December.

Through a Freedom of Information Act request, the Tribune determined that about 40 of the district-run schools were below the 10% sign-up threshold as CTU prepared to vote on the safety agreement in mid-January. A few schools, such as Mildred I. Lavizzo Elementary School in the Roseland neighborhood and Mount Greenwood Elementary School, had fewer than 2.5% of students registered for testing at the time, according to CPS data.

CPS has not disclosed the percentage of children registered for the testing program who are unvaccinated.

About 53% of CPS students 12 and older are fully vaccinated, Martinez said Tuesday, while about a third of students 5 to 11 years old have received at least one dose.

Martinez announced Tuesday the district will shorten the quarantine and isolation period for students and staff members from 10 days to five days starting Feb. 1. Martinez said he hopes to restart the test-to-stay pilot after the omicron surge subsides. The program would allow unvaccinated students to avoid quarantine if they test negative for COVID-19 several times.

Also Tuesday, Martinez defended a recent change to CPS’ public COVID-19 online dashboard amid criticism the district is withholding data. CPS stopped disclosing all reported cases on the individual school pages of the dashboard in favor of just showing cases that have been investigated and closed by the district’s contact tracers.

Martinez said the shift was made to reduce instances of duplicate and false reports. CPS still notes all reported cases on the main district page of the dashboard, he said.

“One of the things we’re looking at now is ... are there strategies that we can try to maximize accuracy while still making sure that we’re providing complete and relevant data to our families?” Martinez said while emphasizing that the dashboard is not the only source of district COVID-19 information. Families should be receiving prompt notification from CPS if their child has tested positive through school-based testing or encountered an infected person, Martinez said.

Martinez said the district may have reached its omicron peak last week. CPS reported 2,200 new student cases last week — the most of the school year — and 600 new adult infections, a decline from prior weeks.

tswartz@tribpub.com

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