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With half of kids quarantined at W. Side school, union pushes for more safety measures, district official backs vaccine mandate

Some 173 students at Jensen Elementary are in quarantine.

Jens Jensen Public School, at 3030 W. Harrison St., on Wednesday afternoon, Sept. 22, 2021.
The Chicago Teachers Union says more than half of students at Jensen Elementary are in quarantine.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

With thousands of students in quarantine, including more than half of at least one West Side elementary school, Chicago Teachers Union officials called on Chicago Public Schools to bolster pandemic safety measures — but the mayor pushed back and demanded the union come to the bargaining table.

At a press conference at Jensen Elementary, CTU President Jesse Sharkey pushed for a robust vaccination program for students as well as enhanced COVID testing and contact tracing. He and CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates criticized Mayor Lori Lightfoot after she admitted she was “disappointed” with the rollout of CPS’ testing plan, which has been slow to get off the ground weeks into the school year.

“You cannot be disappointed when you are in control,” Davis Gates said.

Later Wednesday at the monthly Board of Education meeting, Dr. Kenneth Fox, the district’s health chief, said he backed a vaccine mandate for students ages 12 and up, who are the only ones currently eligible for shots. But he said Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the Illinois Department of Public Health need to add COVID-19 to the list of state-required shots. Lightfoot had previously said she thought it was “premature” to require the shots.

CTU has been calling for CPS to put in writing a “safety agreement” that would create a framework for better precautions.

At an unrelated news conference later Wednesday, Lightfoot again voiced her frustration with the testing program and said she has directed Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady to work with newly appointed schools CEO Pedro Martinez to quickly right the ship.

“We need to work together to make sure that we’ve got more testing resources. We’ve got to get more vaccines. But we’ve got to do that in partnership with the CTU. Them being on the sideline and lobbying bombs from the cheap seats ain’t gonna get it done. They need to be at the table with us,” the mayor said.

The union and district have been in active negotiations for weeks but have not come to an agreement.

Linda Jiles, a school nurse at Jensen Elementary on the West Side where more than half of students are under quarantine, calls for enhanced safety measures at a news conference Wednesday.
Linda Jiles, a school nurse at Jensen Elementary on the West Side, calls for enhanced safety measures at a news conference Wednesday.
Chicago Teachers Union

At Jensen, 3030 W. Harrison St., there were six confirmed COVID cases during the week that ended last Friday, according to CPS’ COVID tracker, leaving 173 students who were close contacts in quarantine. The school has 297 students enrolled, CPS data shows.

Linda Jiles, a school nurse, said staff members at the school are doing their best, but they don’t have the tools they need to succeed.

“We’ve not been having any temperature checks. We have not been having any health screenings. We have not been having a lot of the things we had last school year, and as a result of that, this is what happens,” she said.

Nearly all students at Jensen, a school in East Garfield Park, are Black.

Sharkey pointed to higher vaccination rates in white communities than Black communities and said the skewed numbers are also playing out in quarantined classrooms across the city.

“There’s 10,000 students in quarantine in the city of Chicago right now,” Sharkey said. He called quarantining kids a “crude measure” that could be largely avoidable if safety measures were heightened.

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 school 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, contact tracing investigations to determine close contacts have been backed up by days. CPS officials said at the Board of Education meeting that they would in fact triple the number of contact tracers in the coming weeks, up to around 80.

Maurice Swinney, CPS’ interim chief education officer, told board members that the district has been improving its contact tracing program on the fly. CPS was caught a bit off guard when cases spiked after Labor Day and more investigations and calls were required, he said.

Lightfoot said she had a “long discussion” with Sharkey Tuesday night, and told him CPS is “committed” to fixing what went wrong.

The mayor was asked whether it was fair to force 9,600 CPS students to be quarantined at home because they were exposed to 500 students who have tested positive for the coronavirus while wearing masks.

Has she thought about allowing students instead to test out of quarantine, particularly if the numbers keep growing?

Lightfoot replied there is “no reason that the numbers should be growing” and she has directed Arwady to “stand up better protocols to make sure that we’re not seeing mass quarantine.”

“When somebody tests positive, you do a case investigation. You understand when they first started experiencing symptoms. And then you ask questions about where they’ve been. We’ve got to do a better job of that within CPS,” Lightfoot said.