Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools have touted an expanded COVID-19 testing program for students and staff they say will help keep schools safe and open as full-time, in-person learning resumes next week.
But with the first day of full-time in-person school in over 17 months only a weekend away for 340,000 students, details of that plan were still trickling out late Friday, leaving principals scrambling to get information to families and the vast majority of parents still in the dark about how sign up for the optional testing program that’s supposed to start the following week.
The district has said it’ll make tests available to all students whose parents agree to have their children take them, while athletes and unvaccinated staff will be required to submit to testing.
CPS isn’t following the mandatory testing model used in Los Angeles public schools, however, or testing students and staff before they return to schools — which helped L.A. detect thousands of cases before classes started.
And CPS isn’t planning on using rapid saliva tests developed by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for which over 1,200 K-12 schools serving 650,000 students throughout the state have registered. CPS will instead administer nasal swabs that take 24 to 48 hours to process through a contract announced Friday with health provider Fisher Scientific Company LLC.
CPS Interim CEO José Torres said at a news conference Friday the district would be ready to start testing children and adults for the coronavirus next week. But he wouldn’t say how many would be tested weekly, only repeating that tests will be offered to all who want to take them.
“We’re not mandating the test, we’re offering it,” Torres said. “We’re mandating it for athletes. And I expect a high percentage of them to be tested. And once we identify, we have a robust contact tracing process to identify students who may be positive.”
Torres said testing is only one mitigation protocol along with the district’s universal masking mandate, hand washing, ventilation and social distancing. CPS has also hired additional staff to handle contact tracing and required its employees to get vaccinated.
The district rolled back some of last year’s safety measures this week, however, such as eliminating the mandatory daily online health screener and temperature checks. CPS has only committed to three feet of social distancing “wherever possible” and isn’t requiring vaccinated students or staff to quarantine if they’re exposed as a close contact to a confirmed case.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot said CPS had provided testing information to parents and suggested they should follow up with principals if they had additional questions.
The Sun-Times asked about a dozen parents if they had been sent a form to opt in for testing, and none had by Friday afternoon.
“We’ve provided a lot of information to the parents. If they don’t have it, then we need to do a better job of communicating,” Lightfoot said.
“We believe we have the infrastructure in place to do the testing that’s necessary.”
Principals confirmed to the Sun-Times they received information about student testing just before 5 p.m. Friday and were told it was their responsibility to forward that information to families ahead of Monday’s reopening. Parents would be sent an online form to register their children for in-school testing.
A CPS spokeswoman said federal and state guidelines prevent the district from testing students without parent consent. She didn’t say whether the district considered using the U. of I. rapid saliva test.
In the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest school system, weekly coronavirus tests are mandatory for all returning 465,000 students and 75,000 staff regardless of vaccination status. Students whose parents opt out them out of tests can only attend a remote learning program, an L.A. district spokeswoman said.
In Chicago, CPS leaders have said they won’t offer a remote learning option despite parents’ requests — and said they didn’t even have the option because of a state directive to return to full-time, in-person learning this school year.
A spokeswoman with the Illinois State Board of Education indicated districts are free to offer remote learning but that it would require a more individualized process than last year when it was offered to all students.
L.A.’s testing program started with baseline tests two weeks before the first day of school to screen out and isolate any asymptomatic cases ahead of time. Thousands of students tested positive, and thousands others are quarantining there because they had close contact with someone who had COVID-19. CPS did not administer baseline testing.
Speaking at a news conference Friday organized by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Adriana Rios said she’s scared for her 9-year-old son who has asthma and is returning to McAuliffe Elementary next week.
“We are not here to call for CPS to shut down schools,” Rios said. “We are here to call on CPS to keep their promise and be honest about testing for all students and staff next week.”
Estela Revolorio, mother of a 2nd and 5th grader at CPS, said testing would be particularly important for safety and peace of mind because of large class sizes around 30 students.
“CPS needs to present a plan for weekly testing for 100% of students and school staff,” she said, “and then immediately track down everyone with a positive result.”