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CPS plans weekly COVID-19 tests for all students and staff — but stops short of requiring them

The latest safety measure comes as negotiations continue with the Chicago Teachers Union over the fall return to full-time in-person learning and as anxiety grows over the spread of the virus’ Delta variant and other mutations.

Students head to class at Lane Tech College Prep High School on the North Side, Monday morning, April 19, 2021. Students head to class at Lane Tech College Prep High School on the North Side, Monday morning, April 19, 2021. Monday marked the start of the fourth academic quarter for Chicago Public Schools and for the first time in 11 months all 515 non-charter schools — including high schools — were open for in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. | Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times
Students will return for in-person learning on Aug. 30.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Chicago Public Schools officials plan to offer free weekly COVID-19 tests to every student and staff member next school year in hopes of better monitoring the prevalence of the virus in schools — but the district is not yet mandating testing.

The latest safety measure comes as negotiations continue with the Chicago Teachers Union over the fall return to full-time in-person learning and as anxiety grows over the spread of the virus’ Delta variant and other mutations.

“To build on the surveillance testing program that CPS launched last year to measure and monitor COVID-19 prevalence among asymptomatic people in a community over time, we are committed to testing 100 percent of CPS students and staff each week,” interim CPS CEO José Torres and interim chief education officer Maurice Swinney wrote in an email to parents last week.

Spokeswoman Emily Bolton confirmed the district doesn’t currently plan to make the tests mandatory. Parental consent will be required for students to be tested. The program will mirror a similar, albeit smaller, testing plan last spring, she said.

Under that system, students and staff were assigned a date and time and told to go to a designated testing location inside the school building when it was their turn. The entire process was supposed to take about 15 minutes, according to the district.

Teachers, staff and some students at schools in the neighborhoods hardest-hit by the virus were to be tested regularly. But CPS published records that showed thousands of tests being refused each week. Officials and teachers attributed the refusals to testing fatigue or tests being offered during classes when teachers were unable to leave their students, among other reasons.

It wasn’t clear how the district would get around those challenges this time around, or what type of test — one that requires lab examination or a rapid results one — would be used. The University of Illinois used a rapid test last school year that has become a model for schools of all levels nationwide because of its speed and accuracy, and many suburban districts and private schools plan to use it this year.

The district put out a bid request for companies to help administer COVID-19 testing, and another for an online platform to track tests and share results. Submissions for those two contracts were due at the end of June but vendors haven’t yet been announced.

CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said the union received a different proposal from the district toward the end of last week that included caveats for student testing depending on community transmission and didn’t go as far as testing all kids and staff. She said the CTU would likely agree to the full testing plan if it’s put in writing as a bargaining proposal, and leaders expect to discuss the issue in negotiations Tuesday.

“We need the maximum amount of safety going back into our school communities,” Davis Gates said. “The Delta variant and the lack of vaccinations for students under the age of 12 are concerning.”

CPS hasn’t yet required its staff or eligible students to get vaccinated, though the Board of Education approved a resolution months ago that would allow officials to set that type of mandate for employees when they find it necessary. The district hasn’t yet added COVID-19 shots to its list of mandatory inoculations for students. Government agencies and companies in recent weeks have increasingly mandated shots for their employees and customers as vaccination rates have lagged while virus variants spread.

The district also vowed to notify school communities of confirmed COVID-19 cases in their buildings and continue tracking totals on the district’s website.