The mother of a Chicago Public Schools student at Jensen Elementary has passed away after battling COVID-19, according to her family, while hundreds of students, including her own, were ordered to quarantine because they were exposed to several confirmed cases of the virus at the school.
The district, which has faced criticism from the Chicago Teachers Union and some parents over its safety plan as it reopens full-time this fall, has claimed since the start of the pandemic that there has been little, if any, in-school transmission of the virus, and again Monday denied finding any evidence that the eight cases at Jensen were passed on to others in the building or at home.
Before she died late last week, Shenitha “Angel” Curry — described by family as “vibrant and outspoken” — said she was frustrated and angry with the school system’s COVID-19 protocols, particularly the contract tracing program which she said never reached her for an interview. Curry’s sister said Monday that Curry, who was unvaccinated, told her in her final days that she was sure her illness stemmed from the school. Curry’s 44th birthday would have been later this week.
Anxiety was already high at Jensen before parents learned of Curry’s death from teachers and union organizers as they brought their kids to school Monday. Over the past two weeks, 205 students have been sent home after they were identified as close contacts to at least one of eight children or educators who contracted the virus, according to district records. That left 11 of the school’s 17 classrooms in quarantine, with eight classes due to return Monday from their two-week remote learning period. The Lawndale school enrolls 297 students, most of whom are too young to be vaccinated.
Curry’s 5th grade daughter was one of the kids who was directed to isolate and set to return this week, but she is staying home after her mother’s passing on Thursday. Curry also has a son in high school.
CPS officials wrote in an email to the Jensen community Sunday evening that they were “saddened by the devastating impacts of COVID-19 on our community, and understand the fear and anxiety you must be feeling from this tragedy.”
The district didn’t mention Curry’s passing in that message, and spokeswoman Catherine Hosinski said in an email Monday that CPS is “unable to confirm or deny reports of health concerns related to our students and their family members due to federal privacy laws.”
She added that the Chicago Department Public Health “continues to review the situation, but at this time, and based on the information available, including timing of symptoms, test dates, and known out-of-school exposures, there is no evidence” that any of the eight Jensen cases were transmitted in school.
District officials visited the school Monday and said they planned to offer testing at the school through Lurie Children’s Hospital starting Tuesday. Testing hasn’t yet been conducted at Jensen this school year.
A spokeswoman for the Cook County medical examiner said the office hadn’t yet received notice of Curry’s death from the hospital where she was admitted, West Suburban Medical Center in Oak Park, so an official cause of death hasn’t been determined.
Jensen teachers and staff wore black Monday and laid roses outside the school to memorialize Curry’s death and another mother who they said passed away Friday. No details were released about that mom or her cause of death.
The 60644 zip code where Curry lived is in the city’s bottom five COVID-19 vaccination rates at 48%, city data shows. Curry herself had vaccine hesitancy for various reasons and had not received a shot despite underlying medical conditions, her sister said.
In a Facebook post Sept. 16, Curry wrote that she first received an email that her daughter was in close proximity to someone who tested positive for COVID-19 and would need to quarantine. She said she then was sent a text telling her contact tracing was complete and her daughter’s class would return to school this Monday.
“Someone please educate me on how contact tracing is done,” Curry wrote, saying that nobody has “called my phone to see if we were sick over here.” At that point, her post said, she and her daughter had been sick for a few days already, although her daughter had gotten better. In response to a friend’s comment on her post, Curry said she could “barely get to the bathroom” because she was so sick.
In an interview Monday, Curry’s sister Jasyma Johnson said Curry went to the emergency room the day she made that Facebook post, and she was discharged the same night. After a few days of battling the virus, Curry went into cardiac arrest that Sunday and was sent to intensive care, where she stayed until she passed away Thursday.
Johnson said her sister strictly followed pandemic mitigation protocols, only leaving her home when necessary and always wearing a mask, cleaning her hands and disinfecting surfaces. She had wanted her kids to learn remotely this fall, Johnson said.
“She was just really upset that she had to send her children to school because she felt like she knew she was going to be the one who got sick. And here it is. She got sick, and she didn’t beat it.”
Meanwhile, other parents at the school Monday said they were worried about their children’s health.
Latrice Jackson, who has two sons and a daughter at Jensen, was outside Jensen in the afternoon pulling her sons from school. Jackson’s daughter, meanwhile, has been quarantined for almost two weeks because of exposure to a confirmed case and is in a classroom that’s due to return Wednesday. She has been learning virtually in that time.
“I was a little bit [nervous] but it seemed like they had everything together as far as safety,” Jackson said about sending her kids back to school this fall. “But it doesn’t look like that anymore. ... It’s ridiculous. My kids are going home.”
Jackson said she believes the whole school should shut down for two weeks for cleaning and quarantining. She wasn’t sure if she’d send her daughter back this week when her quarantine period is done.
“I don’t think it’s safe,” Jackson said.
Contributing: Brett Chase