About one in every dozen Chicago Public Schools students contracted COVID-19 this school year, the district’s first year of full-time, in-person learning since the pandemic began.
With CPS closing out the school year Tuesday, the district is reporting nearly 22,500 cases among 272,000 students from the first week of school in August through last week. Each case represents an individual report of COVID-19, so a student reinfected with the virus would count as two cases. The data doesn’t include CPS charter, contract and alternative learning students, of which there are 58,000.
This was supposed to be a recovery year for CPS, but that’s not the way it unfolded. The district struggled to launch and expand testing and contact tracing initiatives. It faced opposition from the Chicago Teachers Union, whose members did not want to work in person during January’s omicron surge without additional safety protections, and from a downstate attorney, who challenged CPS’ mitigation strategies in court.
It’s tough to say where Chicago will be in its battle with COVID-19 when school resumes Aug. 22. In its recently released budget guide for the coming year, CPS vowed to still provide voluntary, free COVID-19 testing to asymptomatic students and staff and “lead, strengthen and adapt” its contact tracing efforts.
“We will continue to use federal pandemic relief dollars to fund and implement the health and safety protocols that are recommended by our public health partners as we move into next school year,” district leaders wrote in the budget materials. “These may include continued in-school testing, expansions of our test-to-stay program, robust contact tracing, ongoing vaccination events throughout the district, and other COVID-19 mitigation efforts as necessary to respond to this unpredictable global health crisis.”
CTU, meanwhile, intends to begin the fall with a new safety agreement that mirrors the one it forged with CPS in January after teachers voted to refuse in-person work. The district canceled classes for five days as the deal was negotiated.
“We believe that all the safety protocols in our safety agreement from January should continue,” CTU Deputy General Counsel Thad Goodchild told the Tribune. “The district has told us that it has no plans to change the safety protocols that are in place. We believe that the district needs to commit to that in writing, so that everyone can feel assured.”
CPS started the school year without a safety agreement with CTU, but the district did institute a vaccine mandate for employees, with some exceptions, and an indoor mask requirement for everyone. Both directives were eventually eased. Unvaccinated staff members could continue to work, the district said in October, but they had to undergo weekly testing. The mask mandate was lifted in March, after the winter omicron wave subsided.
CTU accused the district of violating its safety agreement, which contains a universal masking provision. Goodchild anticipates an administrative law judge’s decision on the union’s unfair labor practice charge will arrive in late summer or early fall.
In recent months, the district faced legal challenges to its mask mandate, the testing requirement for unvaccinated CPS employees and its policy to temporarily exclude from classrooms unvaccinated close contacts of an infected person. Southern Illinois attorney Tom DeVore, a Republican candidate for Illinois attorney general, waged those battles to some success.
Over the course of the school year — which began in the midst of a leadership shuffle, with new CEO Pedro Martinez not taking the helm until late September — CPS stumbled as it tried to deliver on its safety commitments. A weekly in-school testing program initially touted as available to everyone ran into several obstacles as it got underway. Parents complained that contact tracers were slow to notify of positive cases. A holiday take-home test initiative was a bust.
The district was humbled by the delta strain in the fall and the omicron variant in the winter. A beloved special education classroom assistant died of COVID-19 around Thanksgiving. The virus conditions in January spurred a few schools to temporarily transition to remote learning.
CPS lost its chief health officer to retirement in February, and cases have been spiking since spring break in April.
In its budget guide, CPS pointed to some achievements in its handling of COVID-19 this year. The district boasted that it has administered more than 1.5 million COVID-19 tests since September, secured COVID-19 testing consents from more than 100,000 students and 37,000 staff members, hosted more than 1,300 COVID-19 vaccination events since July 1; and distributed more than $13 million worth of personal protective equipment to students and staff. The union fought for these measures in the safety agreement, which is set to expire Aug. 26.
The district said it will continue to update its public COVID-19 tracker after Tuesday to reflect cases reported during summer programming, which starts July 6. CPS said it finished testing in schools Friday and will resume testing during summer school.
Chicago public health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said last week the city is prepared to vaccinate children younger than 5 as soon federal authorities approve their use, perhaps as early as next week. Some 54% of students 5 and older in district-managed schools and 45% of age-eligible students in CPS schools not managed by district are fully vaccinated, according to district data.
Chicago Board of Education member Elizabeth Todd-Breland floated the idea of a CPS student COVID-19 vaccine mandate at the board’s January meeting — but it hasn’t seemed to have taken root. Martinez expressed disappointment the issue isn’t being handled at the federal level.
CTU pushed for an 80% vaccination rate for eligible students last summer. The union said it is “looking very closely” at the Los Angeles Unified School District — which instituted a coronavirus vaccination requirement for students, but has delayed enforcement. Goodchild said CPS should partner with the union on outreach and be “more intentional” about where it hosts vaccine events.
“We think that CPS can do a lot more to support vaccine access and education around vaccine in school communities where vaccination rates amongst students and families is very, very uneven,” Goodchild said.
When asked if CTU will seek a reinstatement of the mask mandate for the fall, Goodchild said the union will “push for the highest possible level of safety for educators, students and school communities.”
CPS reported more than 9,300 adult COVID-19 cases this school year. About 3,300 students and 240 adults on Sunday were in isolation because they tested positive for the virus or in quarantine because they are not fully vaccinated and came in close contact with someone infected.
“This spring has shown us that pandemic mitigation has to continue,” Goodchild said. “We can’t pretend that things have returned to normal when they haven’t.”
Source : https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/breaking/ct-chicago-public-schools-covid-in-person-learning-20220614-rmcdu6tjdfdtrfisl6mkoox4ci-story.html#ed=rss_www.chicagotribune.com/arcio/rss/category/news/