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COVID-fueled uncertainty returns to CPS as union considers labor action, district bungles testing plan

The CTU says it is worried about school safety, particularly with a surge in new COVID-19 cases in the city following winter break.

Selena Song plays outside as her mom speaks about returning to school after winter break amidst a COVID surge outside Edward Jenner Elementary Academy of the Arts in Cabrini Green, Monday, Jan. 3, 2022.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Chicago Public Schools families are again facing uncertainty and anxiety over in-person classes as teachers consider defying the district and working remotely amid a record COVID-19 surge, and after officials badly bungled a winter break testing program.

The post-holidays return to classrooms had been identified as a potential worry for months by district and public health officials, but the district has so far refused a temporary remote learning period to assess the spread. The district went so far Monday as to claim system-wide online learning would cause more COVID-19 cases in the city but didn’t provide evidence.

The school system, the nation’s third largest, is coming off its highest case totals of the academic year. Though the 1,000 or so cases reported the mid-December week before winter break represent only a fraction of CPS’ 300,000 students at non-charter schools and 40,000 staff, they caused another nearly 10,000 close contacts to go into quarantine.

The worry for some schools that are already short-staffed is a scenario where cases jump and school operations fall apart, particularly since the latest wave of the pandemic is due to the highly contagious omicron variant.

In preparation for an expected January surge, CPS sent 150,000 take-home COVID-19 test kits to students at more than 300 schools in communities hit hardest by the pandemic. The plan, applauded by the Chicago Teachers Union, would help detect infections ahead of the Monday’s return, officials said.

But the program turned out to be a massive misfire. Photos circulated on social media last week of test packages spilling onto the ground near FedEx drop-boxes, where CPS told families to leave their kits. And over the weekend the district said only 35,800 tests were completed, and the majority of the samples — about 25,000 — were ruined.

Of the 10,800 tests that could be processed, 18% came back positive, representing a huge increase in pre-holidays positivity that is in line with the current citywide rate.

“I’ve been watching the news and they were saying so many tests came back inconclusive. That’s really scary,” said Rehana Patel while picking up her daughter Monday afternoon from preschool at Ogden International School’s Jenner Campus.

Patel tested her daughter, Amelia, leading up to Monday. But she didn’t use the one CPS distributed because the district’s testing system is a “mess.”

“I know they’re trying to do what they can, but it’s like come on, it’s been two years,” she said. “The parents called it. They were like, ‘How is this even OK, because we’re testing before New Year’s and people are gonna get together for New Year’s and then what?’ The timeline just makes no sense at all.”

CPS spokeswoman Mary Fergus said officials will “continue to seek answers” from its testing vendors, ThermoFisher and Color, about the spoiled tests, and is “focused on increasing on-site testing opportunities for the impacted students and schools this week as part of our ongoing weekly testing.”

She said officials would follow up with information about using the remaining 114,000 tests that weren’t returned by families. But testing remains optional for families for now.

With that plan scrambled, outside testing options hit or miss and in-school testing still facing capacity and registration obstacles, the teachers union has begun gearing up for another districtwide labor action in a move reminiscent of last winter’s hostile negotiations over schools’ pandemic safety measures.

The union is calling for all staff, students, vendors and volunteers to provide a negative COVID-19 test result within 48 hours of returning to school, and for the district to provide K95 or similar quality masks to all students and staff.

The CTU also wants to reinstate the health metric agreed to last year that would trigger school closures. Under the metric — the citywide test positivity rate is 10% or higher and the rate has increased for the previous seven consecutive days, each day at least one-fifth higher than the week before — all CPS classes would be remote.

If those conditions aren’t suddenly met, members are expected to vote Tuesday on whether to work remotely Wednesday, effectively shutting down in-person classes once again.

CPS officials said 82.4% of teachers reported to work as expected Monday, with about 3,500 absences out of 19,700 teachers. That rate is lower than average but historically in line with days going into or coming out of a holiday. The district wouldn’t release Monday’s student attendance figures, saying the electronically kept records wouldn’t be available until later this week.

Mayor: Schools are safe

Some districts around the country, such as Detroit’s public schools, have required negative COVID-19 tests and closed their doors for massive testing this week. In Illinois, however, nine of the 10 largest systems are opening as planned, reported Chalkbeat.

Fergus said in a statement Monday that “CPS is aware of the CTU’s calls for possible member actions, including refusal to report to work which CPS is deeply concerned could place the health and safety of members of our community, particularly our students, at increased risk.” She said CPS and CTU have met the past week and will keep talking.

“We have reiterated that a case-by-case, school-by-school approach is the best way to address COVID-19 concerns in schools,” she said.

One South Side school already made the move to remote classes. Parents and students at Park Manor Elementary, which was hit by an outbreak before winter break, stayed home Monday. Stacy Davis Gates, CTU’s vice president, said at a morning news conference “there is zero evidence that this school community is ready to reopen.” And some city charter schools decided to conduct virtual learning this week because of a spike in COVID-19 cases.

In a cable news appearance, Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Monday insisted schools are safe.

Lightfoot was not asked during the CNBC interview about the CTU’s threat to work remotely without authorization. But the mayor reiterated her intention to keep CPS open, in part, because of what she called the “devastating” and lingering impact on students from the prolonged, pandemic-induced shutdown. Too often that impact is ignored in the “coverage of the saber-rattling by teachers union leadership,” Lightfoot said.

“We know that learning loss was profound. We know that there were huge gaps in achievement. We know that the mental health and trauma issues of our students was real. And we know that it was devastating on families, particularly those families where parents could not afford” to stay home from work, the mayor said.

Neither Lightfoot nor CPS CEO Pedro Martinez held a public event at a school Monday or answered local reporters’ questions.

Chantay Ollins picks up her granddaughter, second grader Keyaria McDonald, outside the Jenner campus of Ogden International School on Monday, Jan. 3, 2022.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Parents, students mixed on return

Gee Song, whose daughter Selena goes to Jenner, said she would have preferred remote classes for at least a week — even up to a month — with a better testing system.

“It’s scary,” she said. “People say the symptoms are not gonna be severe, but it’s still there.”

Both Song and Patel considered keeping their daughters home, but the girls were upset they wouldn’t see their friends.

Alison Able and her son, sixth grader Alec, said they were comfortable with the precautions they and the school have been taking.

“He’s super, super, super careful about wearing this mask,” Able said. “Obviously, yeah, I mean, everyone is concerned. We’ve been like that the whole year. He’s been doing everything he can to take precautions and kind of just hoping for the best.”

Sill, Alec added he had nerves before returning since multiple other classes were shut down before winter break. He said only 11 of 21 students in his class showed up Monday.

Chantay Ollins, whose granddaughter Keyaria is a second grader at Jenson, said she’s concerned about a surge in cases this month and would have liked to see a temporary return to online learning. The grandmother has been fully vaccinated but not boosted. Keyaria, who has received one dose so far, said she, too, had mixed feelings.

“I’m just happy to be here because I’ve been bored,” Keyaria said. “But I also don’t think it’s safe to be out here because there’s too many viruses.”

Contributing: Fran Spielman, Stefano Esposito