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CPS rolls back some COVID safety measures days before 1st day of classes

The district is eliminating temperature checks and daily health screenings after already announcing a staff vaccine mandate and increased testing for COVID, measures it says are more effective.

Chicago Public Schools Interim CEO José Torres listens during a Chicago Board of Education meeting at the CPS headquarters in the Loop, Wednesday morning, Aug. 25, 2021.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Chicago Public Schools students and staff won’t have to submit daily online health assessments this year or have their temperature checked when they get to school.

They won’t always sit three feet apart — and almost certainly won’t be six feet apart like they were last year.

Elementary students won’t necessarily be kept in groups of 15 that don’t mix with other kids. And there’s no set health metric that would trigger district-wide school closures in the case of a large COVID-19 spike.

As CPS officials look to resume full-time in-person learning for nearly all students Monday for the first time since the start of the pandemic, they’re stripping away several health and safety protocols that were in place last school year, according to a new back-to-school guide released this week.

Those mitigation steps are being replaced with wider testing and a staff vaccination requirement, while universal masking will remain in place — which public health officials said are the most effective protocols. Air filters, additional cleaning supplies and more custodians will also be maintained.

Nonetheless, the rollback of some of last year’s safety guards has left many families and staff worried, particularly as the more contagious Delta variant causes case numbers to rise.

“How can we feel our children are safe when CPS is removing mitigation measures instead of adding them?” CPS mother Kristin Brody asked the Board of Education at its monthly meeting Wednesday. She was particularly concerned for her young unvaccinated children.

“Many of us want a remote learning option for our children,” Brody said. “I would urge the board to ... keep all spring COVID safety measures at minimum.”

The health screener, for one, won’t need to be submitted online every day. The district is still asking families to go through through the form — which asks about symptoms, travel, close contacts and other risk factors — daily. But parents will only need to sign a form once a quarter promising to keep their kids home if they’re sick — a practice not always followed by many families pre-pandemic.

On temperature checks, which are being dropped to “expedite entry” into schools in the morning, the district’s reopening guide said public health officials “have determined that temperature checks are not an effective means of screening for COVID-19.” Some had pointed out last year that asymptomatic people who don’t have a high temperature can still spread the virus.

Board members generally agreed the move away from the mandatory daily health screener was a good idea and would help avoid bottlenecks at front entrances in the morning. But some were critical of the district’s communication to families this summer that hasn’t clearly explained complex plans or provided timely details — such as the release of the reopening guide less than a week before the first day of school.

CPS says it won’t do temperature checks of all students this year.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

‘We trust our families’

Addressing the health screener change, CPS Interim CEO José Torres said, “Why would we do that? Well because we trust our families. We trust the community to take care of each other.

“I think our communities are excited too,” he said of next week’s reopening. “But I have to admit, there’s also a sense of anxiety and concern, and we would be foolish in not recognizing that. And they’re right to be concerned. And I’m anxious too, to be telling you the truth. But I still think that the mitigation efforts, ... that we have the right thing in place.”

Federal and state officials have changed their recommendation from last year’s six feet of social distancing to three feet, and CPS implemented that policy for the new school year. But the Chicago Teachers Union and some parents have pointed out that the district is committing to three feet of social distancing “whenever possible” instead of ensuring it’ll happen.

Shannon Heston, a CPS official involved in reopening planning, said students and educators might not be three feet apart when there’s a busy high school testing period or younger kids need help tying shoes, for example. But she assured the school board that three feet will be guaranteed during meal times.

Torres said he and the district have been committed all summer to reopen Monday, and nothing has changed with that plan. If cases were to spike dramatically and public health officials felt schools weren’t safe, Torres said he would act immediately.

“They really need to be back in school,” Torres said. “We are convinced, our partners are convinced, CDPH, IDPH and CDC all agree that the best place, the safest place for students to be is in schools and the best place for their mental and social emotional learning is face-to-face instruction.”

Union, CPS CEO sound off on negotiations

Torres then said he wanted “to go off-script a little bit here and make our comms people a little nervous” by commenting on the district’s relationship with the CTU as the two sides negotiate health and safety measures.

“I have been very focused on reaching out to Jesse Sharkey and Stacy Davis Gates on the side,” he said. “I’m not at the table, but continuing to keep the communications open. I reached out to them several weeks ago to stand with me and assure families that school will start on Aug. 30. They’ve refused. And so at this point we will begin with some of the fears that CTU has planted, frankly.”

The interim CEO said he hoped CPS and CTU could work as a team, but he acknowledged it could take a while to build a better relationship that “has taken years to be broken down to this level.” Torres said the delay in finalizing some plans or communicating to parents has been held up by CTU negotiations.

Sharkey said in the public comment portion of the board meeting that he appreciates Torres reaching out to him personally, and he agrees “school is a group project.” But even as Sharkey and Torres discussed certain issues privately, CPS’ bargaining team was saying it wouldn’t negotiate those concerns, Sharkey said.

“I do think it’s possible to get an agreement,” the union leader said. “CTU is already back in schools. ... We’re not trying to block the reopening of school.

“But if we’re the ones who have to do the lonely job of sounding the alarm, then so be it. I’m sounding the alarm. There are serious problems with CPS’ plan.”