Chicago Public Schools families are once again facing insecurity and anxiety over the personal classes as teachers consider defying the district and working remotely amid a record-breaking COVID-19 rise, and after officials badly hurled a test program during the winter break.
The return to classrooms after holidays had been identified as a potential months-long concern by district and public health officials, but the district has so far rejected a temporary distance learning period to assess the spread. The district went so far as to claim Monday that system-wide online learning would cause more COVID-19 cases in the city, but did not provide evidence.
The school system, the country’s third largest, comes from the highest number of cases in the academic year. Although the approximately 1,000 cases reported in mid-December the week before the winter break represent only a fraction of CPS ‘300,000 students at non-charter schools and 40,000 employees, they quarantined a further nearly 10,000 close contacts.
The concern for some schools that are already understaffed is a scenario where cases are jumping and school operations are falling apart, especially as the latest wave of the pandemic is due to the highly contagious omicron variant.
In preparation for an expected increase in January, CPS sent 150,000 COVID-19 test kits home to students at more than 300 communities in communities hardest hit by the pandemic. The plan, which was approved by the Chicago Teachers Union, would help detect infections ahead of Monday’s return, officials said.
But the program turned out to be a massive failure. Pictures circulated on social media last week of test kits spilling out on the ground near FedEx drop-boxes where CPS told families to leave their kits. And over the weekend, the district said only 35,800 tests were completed and the majority of the samples – about 25,000 – were destroyed.
Of the 10,800 tests that could be processed, 18% came back positive, representing a huge increase in pre-holiday positivity that is in line with the current city-wide rate.
“I’ve seen the news and they said so many tests came back inconclusive. It’s really scary,” Rehana Patel said as she picked up her daughter from kindergarten at Ogden International Schools Jenner Campus on Monday afternoon.
Patel tested his daughter, Amelia, up until Monday. But she did not use the one CPS that was distributed because the district testing system is a “mess”.
“I know they’re trying to do what they can, but it’s like it’s two years ago,” she said. ‘The parents called it. They thought, ‘How is that okay at all, because we’re testing before New Year’s and people have to meet for New Year’s and so what?’ The timeline just makes no sense at all. “
CPS spokeswoman Mary Fergus said officials will “continue to seek answers” from their test providers, ThermoFisher and Color, about the spoiled tests and are “focused on increasing on-site testing opportunities for the affected pupils and schools this week as part” of our ongoing weekly tests. ”
She said officials would follow up with information on using the remaining 114,000 tests that were not returned by families. But testing remains optional for families so far.
With that plan distorted, test opportunities outside, and test opportunities in the school still facing capacity and enrollment barriers, the teachers’ union has begun preparing for yet another nationwide labor action in a move reminiscent of last winter’s hostile negotiations on school pandemic security measures.
The union urges all staff, students, suppliers and volunteers to give a negative COVID-19 test result within 48 hours of returning to school, and to the district to provide K95 or similar quality masks to all students and staff.
CTU also wants to reintroduce the health measure that was agreed last year and which would trigger school closures. Under the metric – the city-wide test positivity rate is 10% or higher and the frequency has increased in the previous seven consecutive days, each day at least one-fifth higher than the week before – all CPS classes would be remote.
If these conditions are not suddenly met, members are expected to vote on Tuesday on whether to work externally on Wednesday, effectively shutting down personal classes again.
CPS officials said 82.4% of teachers reported working as expected Monday, with about 3,500 absenteeism out of 19,700 teachers. This rate is lower than average, but historically in line with days going in or out of a vacation. The district would not release Monday’s figures for students, saying the electronically stored records would not be available until later in the week.
Mayor: Schools are safe
Some districts around the country, such as Detroit’s public schools, have demanded negative COVID-19 tests and closed their doors to massive tests this week. In Illinois, however, nine of the 10 largest systems are opening as planned, reported Chalkbeat.
Fergus said in a statement on Monday that “CPS is aware of CTU’s calls for possible membership action, including refusal to report on work that CPS is deeply concerned about may increase the health and safety of members of our community, especially our students, risk. ” She said CPS and CTU have met each other this past week and will continue to talk.
“We have reiterated that a case-by-case, school-to-school approach is the best way to deal with COVID-19 issues in schools,” she said.
A South Side school has already transitioned to distance classes. Parents and students at Park Manor Elementary, which was hit by an eruption before the winter break, stayed home Monday. Stacy Davis Gates, CTU’s vice president, said at a morning news conference “there is no evidence that this school community is ready to reopen.” And some city charter schools decided to implement virtual learning this week due to an increase in COVID-19 cases.
In a cable news appearance Monday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot insisted Monday that schools be safe.
Lightfoot was not asked during the CNBC interview about CTU’s threat to work remotely without permission. But the mayor reiterated her intention to keep the CPS open, in part because of what she called the “devastating” and lingering impact on students from the protracted, pandemic-induced shutdown. All too often, that influence is ignored in “the coverage of the saber rattle by teachers’ union leadership,” Lightfoot said.
“We know that learning loss was profound. We know there were big gaps in performance. We know our students’ mental health and trauma problems were real. And we know it was devastating for families, especially the families where the parents could not afford to stay home from work, the mayor said.
Neither Lightfoot nor CPS CEO Pedro Martinez held a public event at a school on Monday or answered local journalists’ questions.
Parents, students mingle on return
Gee Song, whose daughter Selena goes to Jenner, said she would have preferred distance learning for at least a week – even up to a month – with a better test system.
“It’s scary,” she said. “People say the symptoms will not be severe, but they are still there.”
Both Song and Patel considered keeping their daughters at home, but the girls were upset that they would not see their friends.
Alison Able and her son, Alec in sixth grade, said they were comfortable with the precautions they and the school have taken.
“He’s super, super, super careful about wearing this mask,” Able said. “Obviously, yes, I mean, everyone is worried. That’s how we’ve been all year. He’s done everything he can to take precautions and just hope for the best.”
Sill, Alec added, he had nerves before returning when several other classes were shut down before the winter break. He said only 11 of 21 students in his class showed up Monday.
Chantay Ollins, whose granddaughter Keyaria is in second grade at Jenson, said she is concerned about an increase in the number of cases this month and would like to have seen a temporary return to online learning. The grandmother is fully vaccinated but not boosted. Keyaria, who has received one dose so far, said she also had mixed feelings.
“I’m just happy to be here because I’m bored,” Keyaria said. “But I also do not think it’s safe to be out here because there are too many viruses.”
Cast: Fran Spielman, Stefano Esposito
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