CPS says change in COVID case reporting wasn’t intended to mislead public

A CPS dad who has been tracking COVID data pointed out on social media this week that thanks to discrepancies in the district’s figures, the number of infections at individual schools appeared lower than was actually the case.

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Adan Meza, 29, a teacher at Benito Juarez High School, protests with other members of the Chicago Teachers Union and supporters as the union stages a car caravan protest outside City Hall in the Loop, Wednesday evening, Jan. 5, 2022.

Adan Meza, a teacher at Benito Juarez High School, protests with other members of the Chicago Teachers Union on Jan. 5. Around the time Chicago Public Schools and the union were arguing over in-person learning, the district altered how it reported data on the numbers of COVID-19 cases at individual schools.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Chicago Public Schools officials denied wrongdoing Friday after a change in their COVID-19 case tracking, made around the time of the district’s dispute with the Chicago Teachers Union, caused confusion and transparency concerns.

The problems came to light only after an independent data observer pointed out this week that discrepancies in the district’s figures made the number of infections at individual schools appear lower than was actually the case. That, in turn, prompted worries that parents might not have up-to-date information.

Transparent and timely COVID-19 data has been a key factor in public health policy and individual decision-making. At CPS, the nation’s third-largest system with over 600 schools, the spread of the virus is of particular interest and importance to families and educators.

CPS has maintained a dashboard showing daily and weekly cases in the district and at individual schools. But in the spirit of holding government accountable, Jakob Ondrey, a CPS dad, has run an independent website for the past year, monitoring coronavirus cases in the district with up-to-the-minute updates by pulling raw data from the district’s servers. Ondrey used to work in the special infectious disease lab at Lurie Children’s Hospital; during the pandemic, he changed careers and now works in cloud engineering and software development.

In a widely circulated Twitter thread this week, Ondrey showed that starting Jan. 4, the day the CTU voted to refuse in-person work, CPS’ data reporting changed. Cases citywide and at CPS were surging, in large part due to the holidays and the emergence of the Omicron variant.

Through his “CPS COVID-19 Dashboard,” Ondrey said his data analysis found district-wide totals were updated as usual, but school-level cases were suddenly underreported. At times, hundreds of cases weren’t assigned to specific schools. In effect, parents could see cases skyrocketing citywide, but feel a false sense of security that their school wasn’t part of the surge, Ondrey said.

“In a battle between the union and CPS, the opinion of parents is what wins the war, right? And that’s a way to win the war — for parents to say, ‘Oh, my kid’s school is fine and I want my kid to go back to school, and I don’t necessarily care about these other schools,” he said.

In a statement Friday, CPS officials said the change was intentional but not meant to mislead. The district previously published all reported COVID-19 cases at a school — including cases that still needed to be confirmed — but switched to listing only “cases that have been reviewed, verified and investigated by the contact tracing team.”

“This change was made to provide a more accurate number of closed positive and confirmed cases and to protect the privacy of our students and staff, especially in some of our school settings where the case count was very low and there was subsequent speculation about the health status of specific individuals,” officials said. The district said the change was made Dec. 20.

“However, in light of the Omicron surge and in the interest of broader transparency, we are re-evaluating our data reporting and exploring reporting all open reported cases as well as closed cases at the school level.”

Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) and Maria Hadden (49th) had called on CPS to address the concerns.

Despite what the district said about when the change was made, Ondrey said district-wide and school-level data still lined up last month. The divergence he saw started Jan. 4.

He also didn’t buy the privacy explanation.

“You were disclosing that information when there were not many cases, so it would’ve been easier to find out who’s got it. Which even then, if I see a report from an elementary school, how would I have any clue who that was? It’s a number.

“The people who maybe could identify that person are getting an actual email with a date of the case at their school.”

Whether or not the privacy concerns were valid, he said the new reporting method didn’t give parents the best, most timely information, because it doesn’t help them know when a case is investigated and closed days or over a week later — families want real-time information to make decisions. Contact-tracing delays at CPS have meant those investigations can take time.

“I’m not trying to make any judgments about the safety of schools,” Ondrey said. “But when you’re saying that you’re putting out data, you have a duty to put out all the data. And that’s unconscionable to me to change that data out from under people who have been relying on it.”

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