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CPS drops quarantine to 10 days after just 1.6% of kids exposed to COVID at school test positive

The changes come as the school system is still scrambling to recover from a poorly prepared testing program that has CPS “playing catch-up,” as the district’s new CEO put it.

Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady speaks while Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez listens during a press conference where they gave an update about COVID-19 infections and protocols in Chicago Public Schools at City Hall in the Loop, Thursday morning, Sept. 30, 2021.
Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady speaks while Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez listens during a press conference where they gave an update about COVID-19 infections and protocols in Chicago Public Schools at City Hall in the Loop, Thursday morning, Sept. 30, 2021.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Chicago Public Schools students who are exposed to COVID-19 at school will face a less stringent quarantine procedure moving forward, officials announced Tuesday in an effort to ease the early disruptions caused by thousands of children being sent home every week.

The changes come as the school system is still scrambling to recover from a poorly prepared testing program that has CPS “playing catch-up,” as the district’s new CEO put it, and is worrying parents and teachers who don’t think they’re ready for scaled-back protocols.

Starting with new cases identified this Saturday or later, any unvaccinated students identified as close contacts to someone who tests positive for the virus will be directed to quarantine for 10 days instead of 14, officials announced. Those kids will be granted access to virtual learning, while vaccinated students who are exposed still don’t have to quarantine.

“It’s been a lot of people in quarantine, and one of the things that we’re continuing to really be looking at is, does everybody that has been quarantined historically need to continue to be quarantined?” Arwady said at a City Hall news conference with CPS CEO Pedro Martinez. “Very few students are testing positive after close contact at CPS schools.”

Of about 15,500 students who have been directed to quarantine so far this year, only 248, or 1.6%, have later tested positive, Arwady said. That low rate of reported transmission among students who have been sent home — along with the city’s broader drop in infections the past few weeks — gave officials confidence that the quarantine protocols could be relaxed. Those nearly 16,000 students who have been sent home because of exposure represent a little more than 5% of all CPS kids at non-charter schools.

“There are lots of children being quarantined right now and not subsequently testing positive, and I hope that helps reassure parents because I know how worrisome it is to hear your child has potentially had an exposure at school and needs to be quarantined,” Arwady said.

Arwady said there has not been a big increase in children falling ill with COVID-19 since schools reopened this fall. At CPS, officials have found 17 clusters of potentially linked cases at the district’s 500-plus schools, 12 of them made up of two cases, three clusters made up of three cases and two outbreaks of four cases, she said. In all, 306 adults and 1,167 students have tested positive this school year, CPS data shows.

Martinez said he’s aiming to balance the district’s intentions to quarantine students to prevent the spread of COVID-19 with pressure to get kids back into classrooms as soon as it’s clear they don’t have the virus.

The switch to 10 days is backed by science and by federal, state and local health agencies, Martinez said. And Arwady noted that other settings in Chicago have long ago switched to a 10-day quarantine period, in part because evidence has shown the Delta variant is detectable much sooner than previous strands. That means it often doesn’t take 14 days to find out if someone has been infected like it did at the start of the pandemic.

Testing in all but 12 schools

As those procedures are relaxed, Martinez said his goal is to continue to ramp up in-school surveillance testing of asymptomatic students. That increase in testing is already underway, last week reaching all but 12 schools.

But there are still only 20,600 children registered for the program, about 7% of those enrolled at CPS, and yet that represents more than double those who were signed up three weeks ago. Then for those who do sign up, capacity isn’t where it needs to be, officials said.

Martinez said capacity problems come down to staffing shortages. For now, he wants to figure out how to strategically use the limited program that has been developed to test students in communities with the most infections and anxiety about in-person school.

Asked why he thought that might not have been addressed over the summer instead of during the school year, Martinez, in his fifth day on the job, said he’s “not going to go and second guess what didn’t happen and what could’ve happened earlier.”

“Do I wish we had a full COVID testing in every single school, which is what I had at my former district? Absolutely,” Martinez said. “I started that back in November 2020. I know what it takes to ramp up.

“Part of the problem now is we’re playing catch-up. I want to be more proactive because I’m seeing other districts around the country that are already being more proactive.”

CPS said repeatedly in August that it was “committed to testing 100% of CPS students and staff each week” for COVID-19, even presenting that plan to school board members at the Board of Education’s August meeting. But Arwady said Tuesday the goal is now to test 10% of students weekly to get a sense of the virus’ prevalence in school communities and claimed it was never the city’s intention to test all students every week considering it was highly unlikely to receive parental consent from all children.

“I am quite sure that I never personally said that we would be testing all students every week,” Arwady said. The Aug. 9 email that first laid out the 100% commitment was signed by former interim CEO José Torres, and other CPS officials presented the plan at the board meeting, though Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Arwady have said all pandemic long that CDPH has been working “hand-in-hand” with CPS on COVID-19 protocols.

As he’s learned of concerns that testing registration information has been buried in other updates from the district, Martinez said one of his priorities is to provide clearer messaging and simplify what he called a “complicated” sign-up form.

Meanwhile, the contact tracing problems to start the year have also started to ease, officials said, with almost all contact tracing being done within 48 hours.

“CPS is the size of a not-very-small city,” Arwady said. “And I think the numbers of both students and staff that were back, I think the team had just not planned for quite the volume that was in place.”