Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez said he expects schools to reopen after winter break but that more classes could go remote amid a surge in COVID due to the omicron variant.
At a Tuesday press conference, Martinez said he didn’t foresee districtwide closure, even as the city announced stricter measures for businesses. Instead, the district expects to shift more classrooms to remote learning on a granular scale going “school by school, class by class,” he said.
Martinez also urged families to return COVID tests sent home with students last week in an effort to mitigate and further spread when classes resume on Jan. 3.
Anticipating a rise in cases, Martinez said the district would take a conservative approach and move more classes to remote learning when cases arise. He didn’t specify what would lead to a school being closed.
CPS said in a statement Monday that in-school transmissions remained low and that the district would double down on mitigation strategies after the winter break.
The omicron surge has prompted teachers union leaders and some teachers to amplify their call for Chicago Public Schools to set a threshold on when to shift an entire school to remote learning. District officials have not agreed to such a threshold this fall.
Martinez, who has been on the job for under three months, said recently that he would reconsider a metric for when to pause schools if cases get too high, but the district has yet to establish one.
The emphasis on returning to school after winter break comes as Chicago faces a surge in coronavirus cases, averaging about 1,776 daily cases — a 79% spike increase from the previous week, according to latest figures from the health department.
The city had more than 2,800 cases diagnosed on Dec. 15, officials said.
As of Friday, the omicron variant accounted for 73% of all confirmed COVID cases across the country, according to data from the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot also announced plans requiring all patrons 5 and up to show vaccination proof to enter restaurants, bars, fitness centers, theaters, or other establishments that serve food or drink starting Jan. 3. Schools are exempt from this order, Lightfoot said.
As the city struggled with the latest surge, CPS acknowledged in a statement the district was also experiencing a surge. “However, we know so much more now about what works than when the first wave began,” the district said in a statement Monday.
The district planned to double down on vaccination, testing, contact tracing, and layered protections including universal masking, social distancing, and strong hand hygiene when classes resume.
Chicago Public Schools has struggled to get students opted into school-based COVID testing.
About 10% of students are enrolled in school COVID testing districtwide. The number of students who have opted in to the testing program varies widely across the district.
More than half of the district schools have less than 10% of students opted-in, with some schools having fewer than five students getting tested, according to a Chalkbeat analysis of data obtained through a records request that showed rates through Nov. 1.
“Despite the city’s surges, and though cases occur among unvaccinated CPS students and staff, the fact of the matter is that in-school transmission of the virus in the district remains low,” the district said in a statement.
Ahead of winter break dismissal, the district distributed about 150,000 take-home COVID test kits to students across 300 schools in hard hit areas.
Dr. Allison Arwady, the city’s health commission, said the city was experiencing the biggest COVID surge since before vaccines were made available. The city is in the midst of a delta and omicron surge, Arwady said.
Arwady previously said she expected a rise in cases at schools and some individual schools may need to go remote, but she didn’t expect that to happen for the entire district.
Amid the latest surge, schools across the country are already adjusting with a few announcing back to remote learning to curb another surge.
Prince George’s County Public School in Maryland moved to remote learning ahead of winter break “in light of a stark rise in COVID-19 cases throughout our school system,” officials announced. The district would stay remote until Jan. 18.
In at least three New York City schools, administrators decided to switch to remote learning after a dozen people at each school tested positive. In the face of an upswing in cases, some Newark classrooms and grades moved to remote learning and will potentially stay remote when students return in January.
The uncertainty around the omicron variant and the rapid surge in cases has forced some universities to remote instruction for at least two weeks when classes resume in January. DePaul University made the announcement in early December, followed by Stanford and Harvard. Northwestern and the University of Illinois at Chicago made similar announcements on Tuesday. Officials at other universities including Penn State, University of California, Los Angeles, and University of Southern California are also mulling over an online start for next semester.
While officials have said in school transmissions remain low, Chicago Public Schools has seen an uptick in cases in recent weeks. Following Thanksgiving, 1,759 students and 647 staffers tested positive for COVID from Nov. 28 to Dec. 15, according to city data.
The number of students being quarantined has also seen a significant increase.
The district quarantined 10,000 students on Dec. 9, up from 4,655 students on Dec. 4, data shows.
The district’s reluctance to set a citywide threshold for closures could end up pushing more tough decisions down to some campuses — and, in some cases, to teachers. In December, teachers at a South Side school pivoted to remote instruction without official district permission following the death of a special education assistant and a surge in COVID cases at the school.
Following the walkout at Carnegie Elementary in earlier this month, district officials agreed to provide additional resources including more custodial help, vaccination events, and more testing at the school.