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COVID spike unlikely to shut down CPS, but could lead to more remote classes, officials say

Before classes wrapped last week for winter break, CPS was seeing its highest case rates of the year.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Chicago Public Schools families should prepare for more remote learning in January as COVID-19 cases surge this winter, but the entire district is unlikely to shut down, schools chief Pedro Martinez said Tuesday.

The district’s 330,000 students started their two-week winter break this week as the new Omicron variant takes hold in the city and the rest of the country. Before classes wrapped for 2021 last week, CPS was seeing its highest case rates of the year in a post-Thanksgiving wave.

“I want to be clear, our plans are to have our schools open on Jan. 3, our plans are to welcome our children for in-person instruction,” Martinez said at a City Hall news conference with Mayor Lori Lightfoot and City Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady. “But I need your help. I need the help of our families. We’ve been trying to make sure we ensure as much as we can that we can have a safe opening back after break.”

The latest spread as the city heads into the new year has caused newfound concern among families and educators — and led Lightfoot to issue a vaccine requirement for most indoor public spaces Tuesday.

More than 1,300 students and 790 adults reported positive tests last week, nearly tripling the previous week’s totals, which had been the school year’s highest to date. Case reporting has plummeted during winter as students and staff head home.

Martinez said officials “know that there’s going to be cases rising” over the next few weeks and predicted a “sustained period of time, at least during January, of higher cases.”

Some districts in the suburbs and around the country are planning for a week or two of remote learning in January to combat those anticipated infections. Asked if CPS would do the same, Martinez said he doesn’t “see that as a viable option” because he didn’t believe entire districts shutting down were beneficial, particularly compared to the mental health effects he saw on students.

“We’re going to be very granular, going school by school, classroom by classroom. And we will respond based on the information we’re seeing,” Martinez said.

“We are going to take the most conservative approach as we see cases in our schools, particularly in areas and schools where we know vaccination rates are low. So you’re going to see us transitioning more classrooms to remote when we see those situations. And as a parent, I know how difficult that is for families, but we have to take that conservative approach, especially as cases are rising.”

Officials announced last week they would distribute 150,000 at-home tests to CPS students at 309 schools in the communities with the lowest vaccination rates and highest number of cases. Those tests should be used Dec. 28 for results before classes resume Jan. 3, and dropped off at a community FedEx site that can be found at color.com/fedex-dropbox.

A weekly supply of 10,000 at-home tests was expected to be secured by mid-January and given to students in quarantine because of in-school exposure, Martinez said. The Chicago Teachers Union had called for that testing plan to be expanded into the new year.

The district has also urged its students and parents to get vaccinated against COVID-19, and for those eligible to receive their boosters. Those shots remain the best protection against the virus, with boosters in particular offering protection against Omicron. Martinez said shots would bring “stability in our classrooms. Short of that, we’re going to have to take more conservative approaches.”