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CPS won’t administer COVID-19 tests at all schools until mid-September, officials say

Parents, students and educators who expected widespread testing at the start of the school year have been left frustrated by the delay and anxious about whether it would hinder early detection of case clusters developing in schools.

Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates says, regarding that delay in testing that “This has, quite frankly, been one of the worst roll-outs at the worst possible time with one of the most serious things we’ve ever encountered.”
Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates says, regarding the delay in testing, that “This has, quite frankly, been one of the worst roll-outs at the worst possible time with one of the most serious things we’ve ever encountered.”
Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

After touting a large-scale plan for weekly COVID-19 testing of all Chicago Public Schools students and staff this fall, district officials said Thursday that the program won’t operate at full capacity until a few weeks into the school year.

Parents, students and educators who expected widespread testing at the start of the school year have been left frustrated by the delay and anxious about whether it would hurt early detection of case clusters developing in schools.

Officials first announced Aug. 6 that they were “committed to testing 100% of CPS students and staff each week.” It was a surprise move because Chicago Teachers Union leaders hadn’t even heard at private bargaining sessions about a plan for such wide-scale testing.

Though CPS said it wouldn’t mandate testing, the district said it would be ready to test all students and staff at the start of the school year, despite a contract for the work not being finalized until last week.

When students returned Monday, CPS emailed parents indicating testing would begin Wednesday. By Thursday, CTU leaders said they hadn’t heard of even a fraction of schools getting started in the program.

“We were promised last Friday that about 50 schools would be able to [have] testing on Monday. We have yet to hear [about] those 50 schools,” CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said Thursday at a news conference outside Barton Elementary School on the South Side.

“This has, quite frankly, been one of the worst roll-outs at the worst possible time with one of the most serious things we’ve ever encountered.”

CPS has sent occasional emails to families about the program, but many families are still in the dark. The email that included a link to sign up for testing hit parents’ inboxes past 9 p.m. last Friday, three days before the start of the school year.

At some schools, principals have sent information and regular reminders to families about registering for testing. At others, parents said they’ve received little to no information. The district released some additional details this week, though that came with the news that testing would be delayed.

CPS spokesman James Gherardi denied a request to interview Kenneth Fox, the district’s chief health officer, about the testing plan. In an emailed statement, Gherardi said CPS is “in the process of ramping up to test at 100% of schools by Sept. 15,” two and a half weeks into the school year.

When the program gets rolling with health provider Fisher Scientific Company LLC, it will be through a so-called “pooled testing” system. Students and staff will use nasal swabs to submit their sample, and those tubes will be sent to a lab for processing. At the lab, up to five people’s samples will be pooled together. That system allows for more efficient testing of large groups, such as the 340,000 students and 40,000 staff at CPS.

If a pooled sample is negative, all those in that group are told they tested negative. If a pool comes back positive, the lab tests the samples in that group individually and informs the person or people who have COVID-19. Some parents have wondered if their kids would have to take another swab if their pool tested positive, or if that pool would have to quarantine until the individual positive sample is determined. But CPS said that isn’t the case — the lab will simply then test each sample in that pool individually.

Dr. Adam Ratner, the chief of pediatric infectious diseases at New York University’s Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital, said pooled testing is an efficient and cost-effective way for schools to monitor COVID-19. He believed all students and staff should be tested weekly, but said if a testing program doesn’t go that far, it’s not necessarily a huge deal as long as other mitigation efforts are being made.

“Testing is valuable, and if I were running a school, I’d have that as part of my [plan],” Ratner said. “Testing is one piece of it. It doesn’t work alone.”

Ratner pointed to vaccinations, masks and social distancing as keys to keeping schools safe.

“There’s also benefits to upgrading ventilation systems and staffing things so that you can have kids more spread out,” he said.

CPS officials have said they wouldn’t hire additional staff to reduce class sizes, and photos and videos have emerged of shoulder-to-shoulder passing periods in high school hallways, and maskless lunches.

Monica Espinoza, a parent organizer with Logan Square Neighborhood Association, said she expected testing would be key to easing her anxiety. But the testing delay and the vague information have her worried for her kindergartner and 3rd grader who can’t get vaccinated.

“I feel like it’s about time for my kids to be back in school. I definitely never thought we need to delay school,” Espinoza said. “But I wish CPS had kept its promises for our children to have a safe return and be testing to give us a peace of mind that they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”