With COVID-19 cases and student quarantines rising in Chicago Public Schools, parents and teachers are continuing calls for faster contact tracing, more testing, improved safety protocols, increased transparency and broader remote learning for children too young to be vaccinated.
Before Wednesday’s Board of Education meeting, Chicago Teachers Union members gathered outside Jensen Scholastic Academy on the city’s West Side, decrying the fact that students in 10 of the school’s 17 classrooms are in quarantine, according to the union.
“There’s 10,000 students in quarantine in the city of Chicago, and quarantine is a crude measure for trying to stop the spread of COVID in our schools,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said.
That figure has not been confirmed by the district because it has only disclosed “close contacts,” meaning the number of people potentially exposed in a school, which could include students who are vaccinated and didn’t have to complete a full quarantine.
As of Wednesday, though, the CPS COVID-19 tracker was no longer reporting close contacts, a figure that two days prior had topped 9,600. The tracker also no longer provides a school-by-school breakdown of cases. These are the latest in a series of changes in how the district is reporting coronavirus incidences in schools.
In total, the tracker reports 329 student and 142 adult cases as of Wednesday. Chicago’s lead public health doctor, Allison Arwady, on Tuesday called those “really low numbers” and “certainly not unexpected” in the context of a school system that has about 300,000 students and tens of thousands of employees.
“The risk (of COVID-19 transmission in schools) is really quite low, based on everything we know ... and to be very clear: Nothing here makes me the least bit concerned that school is not safe from a COVID perspective,” Arwady said. “I know it’s worrying, especially if people didn’t have students in school last year and now they are and, you know, maybe your child’s had to quarantine. I know that’s very disruptive.”
Arwady acknowledged that “there are a lot of operational things that CPS is clearly still working on,” while Mayor Lori Lightfoot herself said said on “Chicago Tonight” Monday that she was “disappointed” in the rollout of coronavirus testing in the district, which has been slow to ramp up.
The teachers union has had harsher words about CPS’ testing program, which one CTU official said was “completely bungled.” By Tuesday, about 5,400 tests had been administered, yielding four positive and 400 invalid tests, according to CPS data.
But only a small fraction of CPS families have consented to having their children screened for COVID-19, which the union attributed to a consent form a CTU officials described as a “long intimidating legal document.” CTU said it pushed for months for an opt-out plan to ensure broader testing.
Arwady, however, said the goal “is not to test every single person, repeatedly, because surveillance testing is more about are we seeing a pattern that is concerning. Are we seeing a school where we’re unexpectedly seeing cases that that otherwise we would not have picked up in other ways, are we seeing higher rates than you would anticipate?”
The differing views on the relative safety of schools has left the CTU without a return-to-school safety agreement with CPS, with the school year now in its fourth week.
“This here extends well beyond a political sound bite, a ‘disappointment,’” CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said in reference to Lightfoot’s comment. “We have to love (the children in CPS), and our love has to be demonstrated through care … through safety.”
Union officials have said they want to regain some of the measures in place last year. Social distancing was easier to maintain then because well below half of all students returned for in-person classes, and those who did were mostly in schools just two days per week.
This year, parents and students have reported — and images from inside schools shared on social media back up — that while many classrooms maintain distancing, hallways and lunchrooms often do not. The standard was also lowered from 6 to 3 feet.
The vaccine is more widely available now than during the last school year, and is now required for school personnel statewide. But “what’s different,” Sharkey said, “is, the virus is more contagious, we’ve got more people in the schools, so it’s worse in terms of exposure, but the testing program actually got scaled down,” Sharkey said. “They’ve kept the same number of contact tracers, despite the fact that the number of students went up by a factor of six. … It’s been a disaster.”
Parents and teachers have also raised concerns about slow or lacking notification when someone in their or their child’s classroom or school is exposed.
All of that has led some parents to seek the reinstatement of a remote learning option, beyond the district’s Virtual Academy, whose enrollment is limited to children with specific medical conditions.
Other parents have decried the lack of access to online learning when their child is quarantined and the apparent lack of uniformity throughout the district in how students are being educated while in quarantine.
CPS parent Brenna O’Brien expressed her frustration to the school board Wednesday that students in quarantine, including her own children, “are being denied access to an education.”
“CPS is authorized to flip an entire class to remote,” said O’Brien, adding that the Illinois State Board of Education guidelines allow for quarantined students to receive remote instruction. “Hundreds of students are being denied access to remote learning who are in quarantine right now.”
Asked Wednesday about criticism from CTU over the school district’s handling of COVID-19 protocols, Lightfoot said the union needs to come to the table “and actually talk with us.”
“Them being on the sideline and lobbing bombs from the cheap seats isn’t going to get it done,” Lightfoot said at an unrelated news conference. “They need to be at the table with us.”
Lightfoot said she talked with Sharkey Tuesday night but the unions needs to come to the table. The complaint is a recurring one between Lightfoot and CTU leadership as both sides have frequently accused the other of bargaining in bad faith.