CPS sees huge spike in students signed up for COVID testing since teachers walked out

After a dismal start to the district’s program, the parents of 82,683 children have now consented to regular testing, CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said Wednesday.

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Medical assistant Tyla Wilson collects a swab sample to test for COVID-19 for 15-year-old Brianna Green at Roseland Community Hospital earlier this months.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The number of Chicago Public Schools students signed up for in-school COVID-19 testing has doubled since December, in large part due to new outreach efforts called for in the district’s agreement with the Chicago Teachers Union that reopened schools this month.

Testing was one of the key hang-ups in the dispute between CPS and CTU, with the union calling for all students to be defaulted into weekly screenings and parents given the option to opt out.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot was adamant tests should only be administered after a parent opts in by giving their affirmative consent, but the deal with the CTU allowed teachers and staff to call families and receive verbal approval.

The parents of 82,683 children have now consented to regular testing, CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said at a City Hall news conference Wednesday with Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady.

“The vast majority of that increase has been unvaccinated students,” Martinez said.

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Most of the new sign-ups came in the past two weeks, after the CTU walked out of in-person teaching. There were about 40,000 students registered in late December and 53,681 as of Jan. 6. The district has focused its efforts on schools with low registration rates and high numbers of unvaccinated students, he said.

Not all students will be tested weekly — the district committed to testing at least 10% of the kids signed up at any given school every week. Each week’s group will be randomly selected.

The program is designed to detect asymptomatic cases — those with symptoms are urged to go to a pharmacy, clinic or other medical facility and not go to school — to help officials understand the virus’ spread in school communities.

With 123 adult and 325 student cases district-wide through Monday this week, after a record-high 1,324 adult and 2,109 confirmed positives last week, CPS is seeing its highest numbers of people in quarantine this school year: 1,132 staff members and 15,413 kids are under isolation orders.

That’s with CPS implementing new rules in the fall that allow vaccinated children and staff to remain in schools after a potential exposure as long as they don’t have symptoms. CPS is also planning to cut quarantine periods to five days, Martinez said, in line with federal and state recommendations.

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CPS CEO Pedro Martinez provides an update on COVID-19 cases and data in Chicago Public Schools. Wednesday, January 19, 2022.

Brian Rich?sun-Times

Testing has been a problem all school year. Martinez was frustrated when he took the CEO job in September that CPS hadn’t already set up a functioning program, and delay after delay caused more angst.

The district had said in August it would offer in-school tests to all 272,000 students and 35,000 staff at non-charter schools only to barely have the capacity for a fraction of those people when classes came into session. About 3% of kids were signed up at the start of the school year and many still weren’t getting the service. CPS increased its capacity to 35,000 tests the week before winter break. It administered 17,000 Tuesday.

Despite the rise in testing participation this month, there’s a long way to go to reach the district’s goal of all students registered for testing by the start of February.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker helped get CPS’ testing problems sorted out by securing 350,000 rapid antigen tests for the district to buy last week, an announcement he made in the middle of Lightfoot’s standoff with CTU.

Pres. Joe Biden: Schools shouldn’t close despite recent surge

President Joe Biden also pledged $10 billion to help schools nationwide with testing shortages and reiterated at a press conference Wednesday that schools should not close during this surge. Biden added that some districts haven’t used their federal funding “as well as it should be used.”

CPS is also pushing for more students to get vaccinated.

“One of my frustrations, we hit over 50% of our secondary students, 12 and up, getting vaccinated, [but] that’s been slowly moving,” Martinez said.

That older age group at CPS is now 53.1% fully vaccinated, while 32.8% of the district’s 5- to 11-year-olds have now had one dose — an increase that Martinez celebrated even if the totals are still relatively low. Almost 112,000 kids are now fully vaccinated and 146,500 have gotten at least one dose.

“As cases are stabilizing, we’re expanding consents, we’re expanding testing, at the same time we’re seeing more students get vaccinated,” he said. “That’s the formula we want.”

Arwady said the city has passed its Omicron variant peak, with cases and test positivity both dropping in recent days. But she warned Chicago still isn’t in the clear and people should remain vigilant about virus precautions.

Martinez added that CPS has ordered 1.2 million KN95 masks for staff and students as promised in the CTU agreement, and will distribute them by the end of this month. In all, four million masks will be handed out by the end of February, he said.

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