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CPS sending 150K COVID test kits home with students as cases rise in district

COVID-19 cases are on the rise heading into Chicago Public Schools’ winter break, reaching by far the highest rates this school year, though they still make up only a tiny fraction of the massive district’s student enrollment.

CPS CEO Pedro Martinez
CPS CEO Pedro Martinez
Anthony Vazquez, Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

COVID-19 cases are on the rise heading into Chicago Public Schools’ winter break, reaching by far the highest rates this school year, though they still make up only a tiny fraction of the massive district’s student enrollment.

District officials are urging families to get vaccinated and tested — even distributing thousands of at-home tests this week — as they gather for the holidays, and said they’ve been preparing for more classes to revert to remote learning in the coming weeks.

“Even though I have concerns about cases rising, overall I still see the same thing, which is our schools overall, the vast majority, are the safest spaces in our community,” CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said at Wednesday’s in-person Board of Education meeting. “ ... But I also know, again, as cases rise in the community, we are going to see more cases in our schools.”

Martinez said he believes children have adapted to schools’ pandemic protocols at this point in the pandemic, “sometimes even better than adults.” He urged those who aren’t vaccinated to seek out shots and to follow the city’s travel guidelines.

The district reported 223 student cases and 59 adult positives Monday, the highest single-day number for both groups this academic year. High numbers of case rates last week also led to a peak of more than 10,000 students in quarantine because of in-school exposure. As of Tuesday evening, 6,800 kids and 380 adults were in isolation. Officials noted those numbers are still a small portion of the district’s 330,000-student enrollment.

Martinez said he has “mixed feelings” about quarantining because, as a parent, he knows how disruptive it can be to send kids home for two weeks. But he said the districts is erring on the side of caution by quarantining early and often to minimize spread.

“Right now with cases rising, the risk is just too high,” Martinez said. “Until we see a significant increase in vaccinations, right now it just feels, board members, that we have to be more on the cautious side.”

More than 90% of CPS staff are vaccinated, and students aged 12-17 finally passed the 50% vaccination benchmark this month, the district said.

CPS also said this week it would distribute 150,000 take-home COVID-19 test kits to students at more than 300 schools in communities hit hardest by the pandemic. The district strongly encouraged families to test their children Dec. 28, a few days after Christmas and six days before students return to schools in the new year, to allow time to get results before classes resume.

Instructions for conducting the test would be included, and the test samples could be dropped off at community FedEx drop boxes the same day. Drop box locations and hours are found at

Families were also encouraged to visit other community testing sites and sign up for weekly in-school tests at Officials said they administered 32,000 screener tests throughout the district last week to students whose parents consented to weekly asymptomatic testing, and 0.82% came back positive.

Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey, attending in-person for the first time since meetings returned to the board room over the summer, said the at-home tests were a “wise step.”

“Increasing testing to that kind of scale is something the CTU has been demanding for months, and I think we need to continue it if that’s possible, coming into the new year,” he told the board.

Officials also said their contact tracing program is running as efficiently as it has all year, clearing about 1,000 cases per week. But parents throughout the district have said they’re getting notices as late as 10 days after a case is confirmed that their child was in close contact and might have been exposed.

CTU: Lack of guidelines could ‘cause problems’

Sharkey added that he hoped to see city officials issue clearer guidance around what conditions would cause a school to revert to remote learning now that cases are rising. The information the union was getting at the bargaining table were “not clear and they’re not reassuring for us in the context of increasing transmission, a new variant and the amount of COVID that is coming into our buildings.

“What I need you to understand is that if you do not formulate a clear guideline, a guardrail if you will, that parents, the public and members of my union can understand and have some confidence in, then it’s going to cause problems as we look into the new year.

“I’m not looking for a repeat of last winter. I still have nightmares when we talk about it,” he said, referring to lengthy, hostile reopening negotiations that several times almost led to a teachers strike. “But I’m also not going to be the frog who doesn’t jump out of the pot before I get boiled.”