As quarantine notices go out, Chicago needs more time to fully expand school COVID testing

A close up of a health care worker’s hands in blue gloves working with COVID testing swabs.
Chicago is rolling out a voluntary testing program for all students and staff by Sept. 15. (Brittany Murray / MediaNews Group / Long Beach Press-Telegram via Getty Images)

Four days into the full-time reopening of classrooms and amid criticism from teachers and parents over scant information on COVID-19 testing, Chicago Public Schools on Thursday said it needs two more weeks to expand its voluntary testing program to every school.

The district had pledged the program would be in place during the first week of the school year. 

Weekly tests will be offered to all students and employees by Sept. 15 regardless of vaccination status, officials said on Thursday, adding that more information would be forthcoming about the program. The district has also promised to make free tests available to students and employees with COVID symptoms or known exposure.

The update came as the city’s teachers union sharpened its public fault-finding with the district’s safety measures and as schools began sending quarantine notices home to families. Exactly how many classrooms had students under quarantine was not immediately clear on Thursday. 

The school district is publicly tracking confirmed COVID-19 cases on its website, but it is not doing so in real time. As of Thursday midday, it was publicly reporting 28 employee and 11 student confirmed cases, with about 150 close contacts in quarantine and two quarantined pods — but the numbers did not appear to be updated, and some parents reported quarantined classrooms on social media that were not yet reflected on the tracker. 

By late afternoon Thursday, union officials said they’d been told at the bargaining table that more than 900 students were in quarantine.

So far, the number of cases reported in Chicago — a district with about 340,000 students and more than 31,000 employees — is dwarfed by case counts in downstate districts on the state’s school outbreak list. Some of these districts were flagged for not complying with the state’s mask mandate. 

Jakob Ondrey, an operations engineer at a telecom firm and father of three, has been tracking COVID-19 cases in Chicago Public Schools since last year via his own website. On Wednesday, his second grader came home from a North Side elementary school with a school-issued Chromebook and a quarantine note — the youngster had been in close contact with a person who tested positive for COVID-19.

Yet, on Thursday, Ondrey said, there was still a zero beside his school’s caseload, even as his son sat on the back porch logging in to class via Google Meet. That’s what he will be doing for about the next 14 days, depending on when contact tracers for the district determine the day of exposure.

In response to a question about a possible lag, a district spokesperson stressed that the tracker remains the place to go for the latest confirmed data. 

“Layered mitigation strategies work, and while we understand parents may be concerned when they hear of a case due to transparent, school-wide notifications, that is not indicative of school-based transmission,” district spokesman James Gherardi said in a statement.

The district tracker does not include information on school-based transmission or outbreaks. 

How frequently to test students, and whether to make those tests voluntary, was a point of friction with the teachers union all summer. The Chicago Teachers Union has been pushing for a mandatory testing program such as the one in the Los Angeles school district, and it blasted the delay in launching the program. Chicago’s plan is more robust than that at some other large districts, including New York City, which has said it will test 10% of unvaccinated students and staff twice a month.

Outside Clara Barton Elementary in the city’s Auburn-Gresham neighborhood on Thursday morning, members of the Chicago Teachers Union and SEIU Local 73 said they were troubled by delays and poor communication around the testing program.

“Every day we delay putting into place testing and cleaning protocols is another day lives are at risk,” said Dian Palmer, the president of SEIU Local 73.

Members also expressed deep concerns about the cleanliness of the school, and said the prekindergarten classrooms had no running water for handwashing and that first floor restrooms were still under construction and not accessible. SEIU Local 73 represents classroom assistants, custodians, bus aides, and some other key school support personnel.  

“At Barton, we are confronting a range of safety issues that should have been addressed before students returned,” said Kevin Triplett, a fifth grade social studies teacher and union delegate.  “The school is under construction inside ... There are no working bathrooms on the first floor for students or staff. Remember social distancing and handwashing?” 

Chicago Public Schools says it is working with Thermo Fisher, a Massachusetts-based testing vendor, to provide free weekly testing. Thermo Fisher uses nasal swabs, and the district said testing would be done on-site at schools and supervised by campus administrators and health care professionals. Employees and some students will administer their own tests, according to a district FAQ.

The district said that it will be giving PCR tests, not rapid tests, and it would take about 24 hours to get results back. Once a parent consents to having a student tested, tests would be conducted at a regular day and time each week, according to the district. A student can decline the test even if a parent has opted into the testing program. 

Ondrey, the father of three, said that COVID-19 testing was among the topics he and his wife covered in back-to-school conversations this week for their sons. He’s not surprised to start hearing about classroom quarantines. 

“It’s going to happen to my other kid’s class too, I’m sure,” he said. “Kids showing up not knowing they have something is just a function of community prevalence.” 

Earlier in the week, Ondrey’s family was given the opt-in information for the district’s testing program, but the free school-based testing did not yet appear to be available. So the family planned to use an over-the-counter test from the drugstore at home. 

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