Aide at CPS special education high school tests positive for coronavirus, officials say

The aide had worked in the school for a week while unknowingly carrying COVID-19, city and state officials announced at a Friday evening news conference.

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Vaughn Occupational High School, 4355 N. Linder Ave.

An aide at Vaughn Occupational High School, 4355 N. Linder Ave., has tested positive for the coronavirus after working in the school all week, city and state officials announced at a Friday evening news conference.

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An aide at a Chicago high school who tested positive for the coronavirus Friday worked at the school for a week after returning from a cruise, city and state officials announced at a Friday evening news conference.

The patient, Illinois’ sixth, is a Chicago woman in her 50s who was a passenger on the Grand Princess cruise ship last month and works as a special education classroom assistant at Vaughn Occupational in the Portage Park neighborhood on the Northwest Side.

Vaughn specializes in special education and enrolls 212 students. As of the start of the year, 85 CPS employees worked at Vaughn, according to Chicago Public Schools records

Schools chief Janice Jackson, joined by Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Gov. J.B. Pritzker at the City Hall press conference, said classes at Vaughn will be canceled next week and all students, their families and staff will be contacted individually. 

“While I understand that parents across the district may be concerned by this development, I want to stress that this is currently an isolated case,” Jackson added.

She added, however, that Vaughn has “many students who are medically fragile.”

“It is important to note that Vaughn is a unique school with many complex needs,” Jackson said. “As a specialty school with students for special needs and disabilities, we want to take all possible measures to ensure that the health and well-being of these students is the first priority.”

Chicago Public Schools CEO Dr. Janice Jackson appeared at a news conference Friday to discuss a high school aide testing positive for the novel coronavirus.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Dr. Janice Jackson at a City Hall news conference Friday to discuss a high school aide testing positive for the novel coronavirus. Others at the news conference included Mayor Lori Lightfoot (left) and Gov. J.B. Pritzker (center) and Allison Arwady, city health commissioner (right).

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

City health commissioner Allison Arwady said it was “premature” to say how many people at the school will be monitored but that arrangements for students to be tested will be made “where it is appropriate.”

“We know this has the potential to raise a lot of concerns, and I want to really reassure folks that we want to have conversations with them on an individual basis,” Arwady said of the families and staff at Vaughn. “My team will be asking the students and their families about any underlying conditions that these students will have. We’ll be doing a good analysis of any symptoms that they may have.”

Nancy Bender, a parent member of Vaughn’s Local School Council, said news of the case has caused her “a lot of anxiety.”

“It’s very unfortunate for all the families and staff and everyone that this has happened at Vaughn,” Bender said. “It was bound to happen somewhere, but it happened at our school.”

Bender’s daughter Emily has an intellectual disability and is in her fifth year at Vaughn. Bender said the case will be “unbelievably disruptive,” and she’s worried about how next week will go with Emily at home because “my anxiety plays into her anxiety.”

“[My husband and I are] self employed, and so we’ve had to cancel appointments all next week,” Bender said. “We don’t have paid sick leave. And also Emily’s going to be home all week and she does much better at school than being at home all day.”

Cindy Ok, the chair of the LSC, said she doesn’t want families to panic, but she’s concerned that many at the school won’t have the resources to get through the next week at home, including food and toiletries. She also noted that many Vaughn families also have kids at other schools.

“A lot of our families, because they have a student with a disability, they’re in survival mode all the time,” said Ok, who posted the news in the Vaughn Facebook group and is trying to reach as many families as she can. “It would really be quite devastating for a lot of our families to have to deal with coronavirus and at the same time autism or Down syndrome or a mobility issue.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said student safety will be the top priority, but that “despite this case, I want to remind everyone that the risk to the general public still remains low based upon the advice and guidance we’ve received from our public health officials.”

The school worker who tested positive for the coronavirus disembarked the cruise Feb. 21 in San Francisco and returned to work the next week, not knowing she had contracted COVID-19, officials said. When she started to feel symptoms on Monday, she stayed home the next day.

On Wednesday, when the woman saw an advisory that the Grand Princess cruise ship had a potential outbreak of the coronavirus, she sought testing. Her results came back positive Friday evening, officials said.

Officials wouldn’t say which hospital was treating the woman but said her condition had stabilized. There are now more than 20 cases of the coronavirus stemming from the Grand Princess, Arwady said.

The student body at Vaughn is 54% Latino, 24% white and 21% African American. Three-quarters of the student body comes from low-income families. The school serves students with “mild to moderate cognitive disabilities,” the CPS website says. 

While CPS and city health officials reach out to those at Vaughn, Jackson recommended they stay home in isolation. Pritzker added that all COVID-19 testing is free and covered by the state.

“We’ve also spoken with the largest insurance companies in the state of Illinois to make sure that they are offering the care that is needed not only by the people who are fully insured by their companies but also those that are underinsured,” Pritzker said.

Jackson also said all CPS staff district-wide have been advised to cancel any travel plans to countries on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Level 2 or 3 travel advisory list — China, Iran, South Korea, Italy and Japan. Any employee who travels to one of those countries will be asked to stay home and self-quarantine for 14 days after they return.

All school trips to those countries have also been canceled, Jackson said.

Ngozi Ezike, the director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, said the state is monitoring more than 250 people. Illinois, the first state with the ability to conduct its own COVID-19 testing, has the capacity at this point to test as many people as needed, she said.

Chicago Teachers Union spokesman Ronnie Reese in a statement called on CPS to “rapidly ramp up its efforts to clean and disinfect all schools throughout the city to prevent the spread of the virus.” Reese added that CPS made assurances that all school staff would continue to be paid while they stayed home.

CPS told all families district-wide about the case at Vaughn in a Friday night robocall that emphasized there are no plans at this point to close any other schools. The district added that extra soap, hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies have been sent to all schools.

Ok, the Vaughn mother, said she canceled her own family’s plans for the next week, including her kids’ piano lessons, a trip to a nephew’s birthday party and movie plans with friends. 

She added that she doesn’t know if her daughter, who’s a senior at Vaughn, has had contact with the aide who tested positive. But because it’s a small school, Ok said “it’s very easy to come in contact with every person in the school” on any given day.

“We have a lot of parents that are single and immigrants and they don’t have a lot of support,” Ok said. “Our families are going to need help.”

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