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CPS COVID-19 testing program ripped as ‘an abject failure’ after more delays, few students sign up

The school system is planning to administer tests at only one-third of its schools this week, and won’t extend its program to all buildings until the end of September.

A technician processes nasopharyngeal swab samples positive for COVID-19 at Simple Laboratories in Harwood Heights in April 2020.
Nasal swabs are being used for COVID-19 testing at CPS schools.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

Two weeks into a new school year during which Chicago Public Schools officials said they would be “committed to testing 100% of CPS students and staff each week” for COVID-19, only 3.3% of students and less than 20% of staff have signed up for the voluntary program, according to new data released by the district Tuesday.

The school system is also planning to administer tests at only one-third of its schools this week, for the second time delaying the full implementation of its testing plan until the end of September. Officials had originally said the program would be ready at the start of the school year in late August, then earlier this month pushed that date back to this week.

CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton said the delay is partially due to the company handling testing for the district, Fisher Scientific Company LLC, hiring new employees who require background checks before they’re assigned to schools.

“We are working diligently to expand testing capacity and, in the meantime, encourage all students and staff members to opt-in to the testing program,” Bolton said in an emailed statement.

As of this week, only 9,400 out of 290,000 eligible students were registered to be tested weekly, according to CPS records. Another 6,300 teachers and staff have signed up, or 15%. And tests will be administered at a total of 171 schools this week, about 33% of the 512 district-run buildings.

Chicago Teachers Union attorney Thad Goodchild questioned how the district planned to test all students at the start of the school year when, three weeks in, Bolton is saying its vendor doesn’t have enough employees to test a mere 3% of students. The district’s contract with Fisher Scientific also wasn’t announced until the Friday before classes resumed despite officials having all summer to prepare for the fall reopening.

“We are deeply concerned about the absolute inadequacy of the COVID-19 testing program CPS is running right now,” Goodchild said. “This is complete madness.

“At this point it’s fair to ask whether CPS actually wants to run an effective testing program, or whether they’re taking a page from the former twice-impeached president and trying to avoid testing so as not to find out about positive cases because they’re more concerned about bad press than they are about the consequences of positive cases in schools.”

CPS officials told CTU leaders in a meeting Tuesday that only 638 COVID-19 tests were administered across the district on Monday, according to Goodchild.

Testing is only mandatory for CPS students who participate in sports, and staff who aren’t yet vaccinated ahead of the Oct. 15 employee deadline.

Tests are optional for the remainder of students, whose parents have to fill out an online form to opt into the program. CPS has not widely advertised its testing plan and only emailed a sign-up link to parents after 9 p.m. the Friday before the start of the school year.

Goodchild called the district’s minimal effort to get families to consent to testing “an abject failure.”

President Joe Biden last week called on districts to administer regular testing to keep schools safe and open for in-person learning. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said officials should receive parent consent before swabbing children but has stressed that tests can help catch early infections and keep positive cases out of schools.

CPS has been criticized for not following the mandatory testing model used in Los Angeles public schools. In L.A., parent consent is sought for weekly tests regardless of vaccination status, but those who opt out can only attend remote learning. L.A. also tested students and staff before they returned to schools, helping detect thousands of cases before classes started. And last week that school board approved a vaccine requirement for eligible children.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said this month that a student vaccine mandate would be “premature,” despite leading experts including Dr. Anthony Fauci backing such requirements.