As COVID cases rise, Chicago students encouraged to get vaccinated, wear masks over break

A girl sits waiting in an auditorium alongside a health worker for her first COVID-19 vaccine.
Chicago’s public health commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady and Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez shared data about the city’s rising COVID, flu, and RSV cases and advised students to stay vigilant. (Emily Elconin for Chalkbeat)

Ahead of winter break, Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez and city public health commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady encouraged students and families to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and flu, take at-home tests before gathering, and mask in crowded spaces.  

The two made the plea during a weekly online health segment and shared the latest Chicago data on COVID-19, flu, and respiratory syncytial virus cases.

“It’s a complicated time knowing that this is respiratory virus season, and that that surge that is coming is likely to hit across the whole city,” Arwady said. 

She noted last week was the two-year anniversary of the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines and said Chicagoans of all ages have a higher vaccination rate than the rest of the country. But rates for the youngest children are still very low. Roughly 10% of children under 5 in Chicago have gotten their initial COVID-19 vaccine series. 

“I’m glad we’re doing better than the U.S., but this is nothing to brag about,” Arwady said. 

About half of all students enrolled in Chicago Public Schools — roughly 154,000 children — have gotten their initial COVID-19 vaccination series as of Dec. 19, data shows. But a Chalkbeat analysis shows vaccination rates vary widely by school, with predominantly Black schools lagging behind. 

It’s unclear how many Chicago Public School students have received the updated booster. But city data show about 51,184, or 28.3% of 12- to 17-year-olds and 29,206 or 13.9% of 5- to 11-year-old Chicagoans have received the booster as of Dec. 19.

Martinez urged families to get their shots over the holidays and take advantage of the city’s at-home vaccination program, which brings COVID-19 and flu vaccines directly to people’s homes to be administered to anyone 6 months and older. 

“I’m just going to be a broken record: We know they’re safe,” Martinez said. “We know they give you the best protection. They lessen the symptoms.”   

Since school started, there have been about 9,137 COVID cases among students and 5,382 cases among staff, according to district data.

But COVID-19 isn’t the only concern this holiday season, which comes as flu, respiratory syncytial virus, and other respiratory infections are on the rise nationally. In Chicago, hospitals have seen fewer RSV cases but an increase in flu among children.

“We’re just seeing a lot of respiratory viruses right now because we didn’t see them for a couple of years,” Arwady said. “RSV thankfully is very much on the way back down. But in the meantime, some extra care and caution, especially in the holiday season, to limit some of that risk is important.”

It’s likely Chicago will move into a high level of COVID-19 community transmission, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 600 people are testing positive daily in pharmacies, doctor’s offices, and laboratories, and thousands more are testing positive at home, Arwady said.

“We are not out of the woods,” Arwady said Tuesday. “Know that if and when we move to a high level, we will be asking you to put those masks back on.”

Chicago Public Schools opened this fall with fewer mitigations, including a mask optional policy. Despite an initial uptick in cases, the district has seen fewer laboratory confirmed cases compared to schools reopening last fall in August 2021. 

On Tuesday, Arwady and Martinez said the school district would follow the health department’s lead in implementing a mask requirement. However, students will be on break starting Friday and classes are not scheduled to resume until January 9. 

Last winter, a surge in COVID-19 cases raised concerns among teachers over the district’s safety measures. The Chicago Teachers Union voted to teach remote, prompting a weeklong standoff and canceled classes.

Martinez said the district continues to “heavily encourage masking” and provides masks to “every single school, every single classroom.” He also urged parents to keep sick children home. 

“If your child feels sick, please just let them stay home,” Martinez said. “It’s an excused absence.”

Arwady encouraged families to take at-home rapid tests before gathering to celebrate the holidays. Martinez said the district continues to offer at-home tests at schools. The federal government is again offering four free at-home tests per household. 

Mauricio Peña is a reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago covering K-12 schools. Contact Mauricio at mpena@chalkbeat.org

Becky Vevea is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Chicago. Contact Becky at bvevea@chalkbeat.org

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