Chicago Public Schools will remain in-person after the holiday break despite COVID-19 cases “breaking records” in the city, Chicago’s top health official said Thursday.
The announcement was made as the Omicron variant has become more dominant over the last few weeks.
Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said schools are “a good place for children to be at with precautions” and encouraged parents get their children vaccinated and have them wear a well-fitted mask. But, she added, if a child develops COVID-19 symptoms — even if they’ve recently tested negative — keep them home.
Students return to school on Monday, Jan. 3.
Arwady delivered her comments Thursday in an effort to ease the concerns of parents as their children gear up to return to the classroom next week. She was joined by CPS CEO Pedro Martinez.
“What we are seeing when we breakdown all of Chicago’s data by age that it is not in fact children who are driving the majority of this surge,” Arwady said. “Whether children are in school is not the primary driver of whether or not they are infected with COVID. Where children get infected with COVID, by in large, is when they are in indoor settings and letting their guard down.”
Arwady said the drive in the recent surge are those over 18 years old and though children being infected by COVID-19 is also happening, it is not because of the schools since students have been on break for nearly two weeks. Instead, the rising case load is happening at the community level, she said.
“Schools remain a place where you have the proper mitigations in place,” Arwady said. “Schools can be open and safe.”
Though she warns as cases rise throughout the city, there will be more cases at school that will cause some disruption.
“But in terms of the overall safety of schools, that conversation has been answered over and over again across the country, here in Chicago,” Arwady said. “They are not the setting for significant spread.”
Martinez echoed the idea there is little evidence to suggest students are in danger while at school and they are, in fact, at greater risk outside of school.
Martinez said no large school system, specifically New York City and Los Angeles, has opted to move to districtwide remote learning for at least a two-week period.
“And that’s in New York [where] Omicron hit there sooner than here,” Martinez said. “And that’s again because there is no evidence that we know that have shown us that shutting down a district — especially when the city is open — that that somehow reduces spread.”
Martinez said there are more cases when children are not in school.
The Chicago Teachers Union said it submitted a proposal to Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s CPS bargaining team Thursday morning. The proposal demands CPS require every student test negative for COVID-19 48 hours before returning to in-person learning. If CPS can’t meet that demand, then CTU is calling for a two-week occupational pause.
“We want to be in our buildings educating our students — but we have a right to rigorous layered mitigation that ensures that we’re also not sacrificing our lives for our livelihoods,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said in a statement. “CPS has the funds — over $2 billion by their own count — to be able to do what’s necessary starting Monday morning to keep people safe. If those mitigations aren’t in place by Monday to protect our educators, students and families, we predict chaos.”
The district has sent COVID-19 tests to parents. Those tests originally were to be returned on Tuesday. But the deadline was extended after photos were posted online of returned tests piling up outside FedEx boxes. On its website, the CTU called the pileup a “bureaucratic failure and chaos.”
During the winter break, the district has been sending messages to parents urging them to get their children tested before school resumes Jan. 3. The messages come as the city and state are dealing with a surge in COVID-19 cases.
“The best form of protection from COVID is being vaccinated,” according to a CPS statement earlier this week. “More than 90% of our staff are now vaccinated, and we continue to push the importance of vaccines within our school communities.
“Students aged 5 and up are eligible to get vaccinated, and the vaccine continues to be free and widely available. ... We expect a higher-than-normal number of classrooms to convert to remote learning during this Omicron-driven surge, but we know that we can both protect our children and staff when we all work together.”