Chicago Public Schools shortens quarantine time as COVID-19 transmission in schools remains low, officials say

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CHICAGO — Chicago Public Schools will shorten the length of time students will have to quarantine if they’ve had a possible exposure to COVID-19.

City and school officials announced the change Tuesday as they again sought to put in context the number of coronavirus cases and quarantines in CPS, saying case rates have remained low and transmission in schools has not increased significantly since the new year began in late August.

Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said in a tweet that, through Sept. 25, more than 15,000 CPS students had been traced as close contacts of someone found to be in a school while they were infectious with COVID-19. But of those students, only 1.6% have tested positive for the virus.

Surveillance testing, for those without symptoms, was at about 0.2% positive rate, Arwady said at a news conference, appearing with new CPS CEO Pedro Martinez. They said CPS’ contact tracing and screening programs have improved, though Martinez acknowledged testing has not yet expanded to all schools, despite an earlier vow that would happen by the end of last week.

“What’s good news here is we’re not seeing those numbers increase significantly as we’ve moved from August to October,” Arwady said. “And in fact, they’ve been stable or even decreasing.”

Starting Saturday, the district will reduce the number of days an unvaccinated student or staff member needs to quarantine from 14 to 10 days, Martinez said.

“We’re doing this because that’s what the science is telling us to do now,” he said.

Among other statistics cited by Arwady and Martinez or referenced on the district’s COVID-19 dashboard:

— This school year so far, the district has seen 17 clusters, which are defined as two to five potentially linked cases. No school has had more than five linked cases.

— Since Aug. 29, 306 adults and 1,167 students have tested positive for coronavirus.

— There were 321 adults and 6,644 students in quarantine or isolation on Tuesday.

— Well over 80% of staff have submitted proof of vaccination, though the district has had problems with the technology for uploading vaccine cards. CPS expects to grant about 1,000 exemptions to the vaccine requirement for staff.

Martinez said that with more families giving consent for their children to be screened for COVID-19, the district is struggling to find and train enough staff to keep up. The district now has consent to test about 35,000 students. That’s roughly 10% of students, though CPS has yet to release enrollment numbers for the new school year.

Those challenges are evident as the district continues to fall short of its goal of having testing available at every CPS school. The program was initially slated to be up and running in all schools by Sept. 1, then the vendor said it planned to make testing available by Oct. 1. As of Tuesday, testing was available at 502 schools, with 12 schools still slated for future testing availability, Martinez said.

Arwady reminded parents that they should contact the school if their student tests positive for coronavirus, even if it’s over the weekend.

City and CPS officials have faced criticism from some parents and the Chicago Teachers Union for scaling back some coronavirus safety protocols from last year and for the perceived slowness of tracing and notification about cases, among other complaints.

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(Tribune’s Tracy Swartz contributed.)

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