COVID cases among kids are rising — but Chicago’s top doc says schools can reopen safely

Staff and students walk the halls of Senn High School on the first week back to classrooms on April 23, 2021.
Staff and students walk the halls of Senn High School on the first week back to classrooms on April 23, 2021. All CPS classrooms are set to reopen Aug. 30. (Max Herman for Chalkbeat)

Even as Chicago reports its highest confirmed COVID-19 case count in three months, Chicago’s top doctor is insisting that it is safe for students to return to classrooms. 

The public push by Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady is unfolding as the Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago Public Schools debate what safety measures to put in place before public schools reopen Aug. 30. Arwady this week did not weigh in on particulars such as COVID-19 testing frequency — one of the issues currently being debated — but she and Dr. Abigail Hodges of Oak Park Pediatrics did underscore the need for a full-time reopening in a Tuesday Twitter livestream

“When you look at the risk-benefit … to us, it’s very clear,” Hodges said. “We’ve wanted kids in school.”

Although more young people are testing positive for coronavirus in Chicago, Arwady said the delta variant doesn’t appear to be making them sicker than previous strains.

Chicago’s positivity rate currently sits at 3.8%, up from 3.4% a week ago, with a daily average of 364 confirmed cases and 22 hospitalizations. Coronavirus cases among children are rising nationally, with young people accounting for nearly 15% of the country’s newly reported cases. Arwady said the rise is happening because children under 12 aren’t yet eligible to be vaccinated, and the delta variant is much more contagious than the original COVID-19 strain. 

Still, hospitalization rates have remained relatively flat for 0-17 year-olds all summer, according to city data.  

With appropriate mitigation strategies — masking, pods, testing, and contact tracing — Arwady said schools can open safely, based on evidence from last year. 

Chicago Public Schools will require all students and teachers to wear masks indoors — every district in the state is now required to do so under Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s executive order. Although the exact testing protocol for students and teachers is still being negotiated with the union, the district said Wednesday that it plans to offer weekly testing to all students, regardless of vaccination status. Testing of vaccinated students had been a point of contention with the union. 

“One of the reasons we at the Chicago Department of Public Health are advocating so hard for in-person education was that we saw the data that schools could be open, even before vaccines,” said Arwady, referencing a study conducted last year that monitored about 20,000 students enrolled in local Catholic schools. That study found the spread of the virus within classrooms did not outpace the spread of the virus in the broader community, but some critics said the research did not take into account different student populations and building conditions among local non-public schools.   

Children between the ages of 5 and 11 could be eligible for vaccines toward the end of fall or the beginning of winter, Hodges said. Researchers are expanding their sample sizes and collecting more information before they approve the vaccine for young children. 

“Kids are not just little adults. They’re different,” Hodges said. “We want to make sure all that safety data is there.” 

The next group eligible would be children between 2 and 5 years old, followed by babies 6 months and older. 

In the meantime, during the final weeks of summer, Hodges recommends that parents encourage their children to wear masks for brief intervals of time, such as on trips to the grocery store. 

“If the expectation is that your kid is going to wear a mask, they are going to do that,” Hodges said. “Practice for shorter increments — [don’t just] say for the first day of school, ‘Here, put this on all day.’” 

Hodges has found that a rewards system helps teach her 2-year-old to keep wearing her mask. So she keeps plenty of M&Ms and stickers on hand.

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