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Fight over COVID testing of students — and whether CPS disregarded governor’s offer of help — at heart of dispute with union

The teachers union has asked the district to default to a system that tests all students for COVID-19, but Mayor Lori Lightfoot is dead set against it.

Medical assistant Tyla Wilson collects a nasopharyngeal swab sample to test for COVID-19 for 15-year-old Brianna Green at Roseland Community Hospital on the Far South Side, Wednesday morning, Jan. 5, 2022.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Decisions made months ago, along with officials’ moral objections to a method of COVID-19 testing registration and a reluctance to adopt a new testing program could be hurting Chicago Public Schools’ ability to implement widespread virus screening as the district looks to land an agreement with teachers to resume in-person classes.

Disputes over coronavirus testing are a key hang-up in the battle between the nation’s third-largest school system and the Chicago Teachers Union. The impasse has kept 272,000 students at non-charter schools out of both in-person and online classes the past three days and likely at least some of next week.

There are two elements to the testing argument: Should CPS administer an opt-in or opt-out program, and should the district pay for a testing program run by the state to supplement its capacity problems?

Was help from the governor rejected?

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office has been offering the district COVID-19 tests, vaccination clinics and stockpiles of masks for several weeks, but the city had not accepted any of the resources as of Friday afternoon, a spokeswoman for the governor said Friday.

“CPS has not responded yet, but the state is willing to provide resources we have available to help them ensure students can return to in-person learning safely,” Pritzker’s office said. Pritzker also called the White House to ask for more rapid tests to be sent to Chicago, according to the governor’s office.

Last spring, the state received federal funding to support school reopening plans and pumped $225 million into a testing program providing the University of Illinois’ covidSHIELD saliva tests free to school districts “that are predominately low-income and have experienced high rates of COVID-19 infection.”

CPS was ineligible for free participation because large cities received their own federal relief funding separate from their states, a spokeswoman said at the time. So the district put out a bid request for companies to handle its testing program. SHIELD Illinois applied but was not selected. Thermo Fisher Scientific, which provides nasal swab testing, was picked instead.

There has been a shortage of COVID tests nationwide.
There has been a shortage of COVID tests nationwide.
Sarah Reingewirtz/AP Photos

CPS spokeswoman Mary Fergus said Friday that Thermo Fisher was the competitive bidder and the district preferred the company’s nasal swabs to the state program’s saliva tests.

Martinez has prioritized increasing testing at CPS since he took the CEO position in September, saying he was frustrated the district hadn’t already set up the proper infrastructure before he arrived despite announcing over the summer it would offer testing to every student and employee every week.

Early on, only a tiny fraction of families signed up for testing after the district did very little promotion of the program. But since then, CPS has started testing in every school but can still only administer about 35,000 to 40,000 tests per week. Even parents who signed up their students for the program say they aren’t getting tested weekly.

In statements this week, the CTU pushed for students to be tested before returning for classes. Fergus said while CPS is facing the same shortages as others nationwide, the district is working to expand capacity as soon as possible. A Thermo Fisher spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment Friday.

The governor’s spokeswoman noted saliva tests don’t have the same kind of capacity limitations as nasal swabs kits, which are now in short supply, since kids simply spit in a tube that’s sent to a lab for processing.

A SHIELD Illinois spokesman said the program “has available lab capacity and has ensured availability of its testing supplies” and has kept up with demand while providing testing at 1,600 schools across the state, including almost 1,000 in the Chicago area.

A social media frenzy started Friday after Capitol Fax reported on Pritzker’s offer to the district weeks ago.

Since the state isn’t offering the tests for free, the decision would come down to whether CPS should spend more money to essentially run a second testing program to supplement the one it already has. The SHIELD Illinois spokesman declined to estimate what it would cost CPS to secure the testing services.

CTU members gathered at the union’s headquarters Friday evening to blast Lightfoot for not accepting the governor’s offer.

“Madame Mayor, if the state is giving you or offering you or asking you if you need support with testing, [vaccine] clinics, PPE materials … why are you not responding?” said Briana Hambright-Hall, a school counselor at Park Manor Elementary. “It sounds like it’s kind of personal to me. Who are you really trying to hurt?”

In a statement late Friday CPS said it would “welcome any additional testing resources.” But it said it didn’t choose the saliva tests in part because many of its students eat breakfast and lunch at schools, and the SHIELD system requires students not to eat or drink for at least an hour before giving a sample.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks about the resignation of CPS CEO Janice Jackson and the future of CPS during a press conference to announce the resignation of Janice Jackson as the CEO of Chicago Public Schools at City Hall in the Loop, Monday, May 3, 2021.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot has objected to a program that would test all students unless a parent opted out.
Anthony Vazquez, Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Opt-in — or opt-out?

Another dispute is whether CPS should administer an opt-in or opt-out COVID-19 testing program.

Under the system CPS has implemented since the fall, no student is registered for testing until a parent or guardian opts in by filling out a consent form. The alternative for which the CTU and supporters have advocated, opt-out testing, sees every student defaulted into tests, and parents are notified and given the opportunity to opt out their child.

Districts that have picked opt-in programs have generally seen paltry participation — CPS has slowly ticked up toward 20% of students registered after starting the school year around 3%. Parents have complained about complicated registration forms, insufficient communication and support to fill them out or never receiving the form in the first place.

But Lightfoot has argued the alternative is “morally repugnant” because she didn’t want to “rob” parents of the right to decide for themselves whether their kids should get tested for the virus.

“We do not support an Opt-Out program because we believe it is vital to get explicit parental consent for any medical test, whether we are asking children to swab their nostrils or provide a saliva sample,“ CPS said in a statement late Friday.

When pressed about her position earlier this week, Lightfoot was unable to point to a specific state or federal law preventing opt-out testing.

Amy Campbell, an associate dean for law and health sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago law school, saw no issue legally with that method of compliance.

“The law would be OK with an opt-out type approach, particularly with a public health emergency of this nature,” she said.

While an adviser to some suburban districts recommended saliva tests because they were less invasive than a nasal swab, Campbell didn’t believe the tests would be viewed differently under health laws.

“I really do think this is more because of the political times, the heightened concerns with maybe the anti-vaccination or skepticism environment generally, that there might be concerns with being too over-reaching and somehow trying to thread a needle between various interests,” Campbell said. “But from a legal public health law standpoint, there’s been a lot of support for legal interventions ... that are promoting the health of school populations.”

What’s more, nearly 40 Illinois districts and some CPS charter schools use opt-out testing programs already, said Cassie Cresswell, the Local School Council chairperson at CPS’ Jones College Prep who has researched the issue. A spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education wouldn’t answer whether the state has objections to opt-out testing, but there have been no known reports of state officials halting an opt-out program.

Other districts around the country have used opt-out programs or even gone as far as mandating weekly testing — which Los Angeles public schools have done — or requiring negative results to return from winter break — as Washington, D.C. schools did.

Leonie Haimson, co-chair of the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy in New York City, sees no privacy concerns as long as the testing data is only used for the purposes of public health and not shared with outside companies.

She said her city’s school system has faced similar problems with low-testing participation because of an opt-in program.

“I understand [vaccination] is a politically volatile issue. I don’t think it should be but it is,” Haimson said. “But I don’t understand the controversy around COVID testing at all.”

Contributing: Manny Ramos