Chicago officials are developing a plan to regularly test public school teachers and staff once they return to classrooms early next year, an effort that could begin to ease the minds of anxious workers and move the school system a step closer to reopening for the first time during the pandemic.
Rapid, 15-minute tests supplied by the federal government will be used to assess asymptomatic school staffers who are in regular contact with students, the Chicago Department of Public Health and Chicago Public Schools said Wednesday. Workers who don’t see students won’t receive the tests.
The tests can be self-administered with the supervision of trained staff, and the swabs only have to be placed halfway up the nose. If an adult tests positive, they’ll be isolated and sent home to quarantine while a contact tracing team from CDPH investigates, officials said.
A CPS spokesman did not say how many tests the district had received or how frequently those tests would be administered, only saying plans are still in development.
Teachers and students who are symptomatic will still be asked to undergo testing through their physician, a city-run testing site or another medical provider.
The testing plan is the latest element in the district’s reopening plan as officials move to convince families and workers that a return to classrooms will be safe. CPS announced this week that preschoolers and some special education students will return in January, followed by elementary school students at the start of February.
Dr. Marielle Fricchione, medical director in CDPH’s COVID bureau, said schools would not reopen in January if the level of spread the city is seeing today continues.
Fricchione said health officials studied the first virus surge in the spring and identified a key metric that marked when the city had turned a corner: Doubling time. Explaining a threshold first released by health commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady a day earlier, Fricchione said she would feel confident that the virus spread had stabilized in Chicago when cases are doubling every 18 days instead of the current 12 days.
CPS CEO Janice Jackson urged Chicagoans at Wednesday’s virtual Board of Education meeting to follow public health guidelines so children can return to their schools.
“We have to revise our Thanksgiving plans, we have to revise travel plans,” Jackson said. “And I know that this is hard to hear and difficult for many people, but given the way the pandemic is going, we cannot at this time let our guards down.”
Jackson also announced Wednesday that school clerks and technology coordinators, who have been reporting to schools full-time since the start of the school year, would be allowed to work from home two days a week until the first students return in January.
The issue of whether those workers could stay home has been hotly contested by the Chicago Teachers Union, which filed a labor grievance over the matter. A neutral arbitrator ruled at the start of October that CPS had not proven its buildings were safe and clerks should be able to work from home whenever possible. CPS has ignored that ruling and said the change this week came only because of Gov. J.B. Pritzker returning the state to Phase 3 of his reopening plan.
“The mayor doesn’t get a ‘thank you’ for breaking the law just a little bit less,” CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said Wednesday. “This CPS policy still violates labor law, defies the arbitrator’s ruling, breaks our contract and needlessly endangers workers.”