Chicago will no longer notify schools families of positive COVID-19 diagnoses from district beginning March 31

Beginning March 31, Chicago Public Schools will no longer send out notifications to a school community if a staff member or student tests positive for COVID-19. 

That’s because schools will have been closed for two weeks, the period in which someone exposed to the novel coronavirus might show symptoms of the disease, and therefore any new cases after then are unlikely to have been a result of exposure in a school building, according to a district communication to staff and parents.  

The exception to this new procedure will be emergency personnel like janitors, kitchen staff, and security guards, who will be distributing food from school buildings until April 20, when Chicago schools are slated to reopen.

“Schoolwide notifications are no longer necessary following the 14-day window because there is no longer a risk that transmission occurred while school was in session,” the notice, signed by Kenneth Fox, the chief health officer of Chicago Public Schools and Allison Arwady, the commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, explains. 

The decision raises questions about the responsibility of school districts to notify school communities in case of COVID-19 cases. In New York City, where a Brooklyn principal became the first known public school employee to die from the virus, the school district stopped publicly confirming cases last week. 

Chicago has had several publicly confirmed cases of coronavirus associated with schools — Vaughn Occupational High School in Portage Park, Sheridan Math and Science Academy in Bridgeport, Jones College Prep downtown, and the Noble charter network’s Mansueto High School in Brighton Park. 

The city of Chicago’s coronavirus media email said that contact tracing, when anyone known to have contact with an infected individual is asked to take precautionary measures, would continue, even as schools-based outreach would not.

“Whenever there is such a case, CDPH works to identify close contacts of the individual and provides guidance on taking appropriate steps to protect themselves and others,” the email said. “When school resumes, CPS will make notifications based on the guidance of CDPH.”  

In emails to staff and families, the district noted that it is important to manage the privacy of individuals’ health information, even in a public health emergency: “Despite our fears, we cannot abandon our commitment to treating others with respect and dignity, nor can we violate others’ privacy or protected health information.”

It also warned that sharing unconfirmed reports of positive tests for COVID-19 could isolate and stigmatize community members. And if someone does test positive, people are encouraged to share minimal details about the person, and use their pronouns instead of referring to them by name. 

The district also “encouraged” any Chicago schools employees who tested positive for COVID-19 to report to the district, and noted it was mandatory to disclose their infection status to the Chicago Department of Public Health. 

Shifting in tone, the district’s parting words in its message spoke to the bigger questions that have been raised by the need to rapidly respond to COVID-19: “We want to acknowledge that our world seems to change in the blink of an eye. Uncertainties raise so many questions. We ask that you take care of yourselves and each other.”