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CPS cancels all classes Nov. 12 for ‘Vaccine Awareness Day’

The district gave parents just over a week’s notice of the day off that officials hope will lead more students to get vaccinated.

Eun Sem Kil, left, comforts her son Enzo Garcia, 6, center, while Marco Reyes a Medical Assistant with Esperanza Health Centers applies a bandage to Enzo’s arm after receiving a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, at a Esperanza vaccination site located at 6057 S. Western Ave, Wednesday, the first day vaccines were available to young children.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Chicago Public Schools officials have canceled all classes Nov. 12 in an effort to boost vaccinations among younger students who became eligible for shots this week.

Officials said late Thursday that with the federal government’s approval of the vaccine for kids ages 5-11 earlier this week, they are calling off school next Friday “to ensure all eligible students have the opportunity to receive the vaccine as quickly as possible.”

“Vaccination Awareness Day on Friday, November 12 is an opportunity for parents and guardians to take their children five years of age and older to get vaccinated at their pediatrician’s office, at a healthcare provider, or at a CPS school-based site or community vaccination event,” CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said in an email to parents, adding that sporting events will not be canceled.

Notably, the district recommended parents find a shot for their kids but didn’t offer extensive in-school options to get one. Some pharmacies appear to have limited availability at this point — the CVS website doesn’t currently list appointments for younger kids on its website, while the next available shots at area Walgreens stores are Nov. 15, after CPS’ day off. But many local clinics, hospitals and community centers are offering walk-in appointments.

CPS did not say whether a second day off would be granted a few weeks later for kids to finish their vaccine series.

By contrast, New York city’s public schools, the largest system in the nation, are hosting an in-school vaccination day next week. About 1,070 schools, all those serving kids age 5-11, will offer shots at school that day.

Karen Jakacki Gonzales, mother of two CPS elementary students in Jefferson Park, said she’s able to be home on the day off but knows other families will be scrambling for child care while parents struggle with work responsibilities.

“This could have been a really great thing if CPS planned it better,” Jakacki Gonzales said. “CVS can’t take all the Chicago Public Schools kids in one day.

“If CPS had offered on-campus vaccine clinics, it could have better served the students rather than being like, ‘Hey, we’re giving you a day off to go find a vaccine that’s in limited supply that your family, if you get an appointment, may have to travel a considerable distance to go get to that appointment,’” she said. “And especially if it’s someone who ... is relying on public transportation, that’s going to be even harder.”

Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey welcomed the news while urging parents to “continue to push CPS in the right direction in providing robust outreach, school-based vaccinations during flexible hours, and collaboration with families on engagement and incentives.”

Yet later Thursday, Stacy Davis Gates, the union’s vice president, raised concerns about the abruptly planned day off.

“If we are truly getting this day off for a vaccination day, which is a good idea, we’re going to have a comprehensive plan that includes communication, that includes transportation and that includes anchoring vaccination sites at all of our school communities,” Davis Gates said in an interview. “Anything short of that, this is a stunt.”

Just over 58% of Chicago children ages 12-17 have been vaccinated, according to city data. But fewer than half of CPS students that age have gotten a shot, officials said this week. That age group has been eligible since the spring.

Martinez and Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady have stressed their desire to see kids vaccinated ahead of the holidays, when family gatherings have proven to spread the virus at high rates.

CPS already has a number of days off this month, including Friday for an institute day and next Thursday for Veteran’s Day — which will now be part of a four-day weekend with the vaccine awareness day. There are also days off for report-card pickup and the Thanksgiving holiday.

“It is rare that we make a late change to the school calendar, but we see this as an important investment in the future of this school year and the health and wellbeing of our students, staff, and families,” Martinez wrote. “I hope you will strongly consider getting your children vaccinated on Vaccination Awareness Day.”

Free vaccines can be obtained at sites around the city. In addition, CPS has set up four clinics where students can get shots. Appointments can be made at cps.edu/vaccinations. The sites are at:

  • Michelle Clark Magnet High School, 5101 W. Harrison St.
  • Chicago Vocational High School, 2100 E 87th St.
  • Theodore Roosevelt High School, 3436 W. Wilson Ave.
  • Richards Career Academy High School, 5009 South Laflin St.

So far, those sites have seen limited use. On Wednesday, the teachers union issued a statement noting that fewer than 1,000 of all eligible students between ages 12 and 17 have been vaccinated at one of those vaccination sites, amounting to a paltry average of just 34 vaccinations a week at those locations.

School board members and district officials said at last month’s Board of Education meeting that availability at the CPS sites wasn’t an issue. Those clinics have more than enough shots for hundreds more kids per day, they said, but convincing families who thus far haven’t chosen to get a shot has proven to be difficult.

The union, however, urged the school district to take a series of steps to get more students inoculated, including setting up a vaccination clinic at every school, organizing after-school events and providing “incentives” for families.