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‘Disappointed’ Lightfoot admits CPS’ COVID testing, contact tracing falling short

“In anticipation of the opening of school, there should have been a much more robust plan and infrastructure in place,” the mayor told WTTW News.

Former Elgin schools superintendent José Torres and Mayor Lori Lightfoot head to a news conference at Richardson Middle School on the Southwest Side, Monday afternoon, June 14, 2021.
Former Elgin schools superintendent José Torres and Mayor Lori Lightfoot head to a news conference at Richardson Middle School on the Southwest Side, Monday afternoon, June 14, 2021.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot admitted this week that COVID-19 testing and contact tracing at Chicago Public Schools has not gone as planned to start the school year.

After vowing to be ready by the first day of school to test all students and staff, a population of about 380,000 people at over 500 schools, the district has twice pushed back the full implementation of its testing program.

Even with only 3% of students registered for testing, CPS has so far failed to meet those demands, saying last week that background checks were delaying the hiring of additional workers to handle the samples.

Meanwhile thousands of students have already been ordered to quarantine because of in-school exposure to the virus, and investigations to determine close contacts have been backed up by days. The district is doubling its number of contact tracers to improve its system.

In an interview with WTTW News’ “Chicago Tonight,” the mayor said she wasn’t satisfied with how those aspects of the fall reopening have gone.

“I’m disappointed in the way that this has been rolled out,” said Lightfoot.

“This is not a mystery anymore. We know how to do contact tracing, we know how to do case investigation. And we’ve got to make sure that CPS is using the tools at its disposal to do just that.”

Lightfoot said her director of the Chicago Department of Public Health, Dr. Allison Arwady, should be able to help CPS right the ship. The mayor had previously said Arwady and CDPH were already working with CPS to implement their testing and investigation plans.

“I’m confident that things will improve, and they’re going to improve because we have put Dr. Arwady and her team on the case and they will be helping build up the infrastructure of CPS to do better case investigations and better contact tracing,” Lightfoot said.

Asked by WTTW if she blamed outgoing CPS Interim CEO José Torres for the poor start, Lightfoot said, “that’s water under the bridge, we’re moving forward.”

“What I’m saying is in anticipation of the opening of school, there should have been a much more robust plan and infrastructure in place,” the mayor said.

Lightfoot chose Torres — who’ll depart at the end of the month with the arrival of Pedro Martinez as full-time CEO — at the start of the summer to take the position until a permanent hire was made. Torres said the week before fall classes started that the district would be ready for widespread testing and contact tracing. The mayor also repeatedly touted CPS’ reopening plan, arguing for months that the district was ready to safely welcome back all students to in-person learning.

Lightfoot had previously attributed complaints about testing and contract tracing to bad faith attacks by the Chicago Teachers Union and its supporters. The union has ripped the rollout as “an abject failure.” Parents have also been critical.

“We obviously did this work back last spring when schools opened, and with the full reopening and bringing children back five days a week full-time, there should have been more resources developed,” she said. “CDPH is fully engaged, and I have every confidence that ... CPS is going to be on the right path moving forward.”

Despite the mayor’s acknowledgement that plans aren’t off to a good start, the CTU said in a statement Tuesday that CPS’ bargaining team didn’t budge in ongoing negotiations over safety protocols.