Chicago mother Fiona Cook got the dreaded email on Saturday, Sept. 11, informing her that one of her sons had been exposed to COVID-19 at a Chicago public school. It was not only alarming but also confusing and frustrating.
The person who tested positive was at school on Aug. 30 and 31. That’s nine school days before she was notified. The letter said her son and his classmates should quarantine until Tuesday, Sept. 14.
“It just doesn’t make any sense because they had been in school the whole time,” said Cook, who didn’t want her children’s Southwest Side school named because she thinks the principal is doing all she can under difficult circumstances. “It makes me concerned.”
Cook said the problem extends beyond the school. She is a home health worker and works with immunocompromised patients. She would have taken extra precautions had she known she had been exposed to a positive case through her son.
Cook is among a group of parents and teachers raising alarms about Chicago Public Schools’ contact tracing program. Now in the third week of school, some parents say CPS’ contact tracing is lagging woefully behind, exposing children and increasing the odds of major outbreaks.
“I just don’t feel like it’s a safe environment right now,” said Maria Estrada, whose son was exposed to a positive case in the first week of school. A contact tracer called her and when she tried to return the call, the phone just rang and rang, she said. “I don’t blame the school. I blame CPS for their shortsightedness,” she said. “I believe that if we had better planning, we would not be in this situation.”
In a statement, the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association said many principals have reported that students exposed to COVID-19 had attended schools for days as they waited for contact tracers to complete their work. The Association called the situation “horrendous” and said CPS officials have understaffed the district’s contact tracing department to “a degree that demonstrates willful and wanton neglect.”
Last Wednesday, the school district publicly reported that there had been 161 confirmed cases and 2,900 close contacts identified. As of Saturday, a source close to the teachers union said the number had grown. The source said CPS told the union that there were 5,665 students and 98 staff “in quarantine.”
The school district did not respond to questions about how long parents are waiting to be informed about a COVID case. The Centers for Disease Control does not recommend a specific number of contact tracers for school districts of different sizes, but encourages “swift activation of case management, contact tracing, and local prevention protocols.” CDC guidance states: “Because of the virus’ potential to spread to large numbers of people, open and timely communication are key to intervening immediately and preventing further transmission.”
CPS officials did not dispute that contact tracing is lagging. They say they are trying to hire an additional 15 contact tracing team members and are diverting other staff to support the efforts. They also said in some instances people aren’t responding to questions, prolonging the tracing process.
“We thank parents for their patience and the district will continue to refine its contact tracing processes, increase staffing, and adapt to feedback from schools and parents in order to be as communicative and helpful as possible,” a CPS statement released Monday reads.
Yet Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has not acknowledged any problems.
“I’ve heard overwhelmingly, literally everywhere that I go to, ‘Thank you, Mayor Lightfoot, thank you for opening up our schools, protecting our kids and making sure that we’ve got a safe workplace,’ ” she told WBEZ on Monday when asked about complaints from parents who said they are not being informed quickly enough about positive cases.
Lightfoot said complaints are coming from parents aligned with the Chicago Teachers Union, which is trying to convince CPS to institute more safety measures as it continues to negotiate a fall opening agreement with the city.
CPS officials said they anticipated that contact tracing would take time, and therefore are now allowing principals to switch an entire class to remote learning even before contact tracing is done. This allows for students to be isolated while the contact tracing investigation is underway.
A CPS spokesperson added that some large-scale quarantine measures have been preemptive and temporary: Although initially quarantined, some students have been allowed to return to school as the contact tracing investigation continued.
Yet principals tell WBEZ that they do not feel equipped to make these calls. They say each case brings unique circumstances that require someone who better understands epidemiology to decide who should quarantine. For example, if an infected child ate lunch in a cafeteria with a different class, should that other class also be quarantined?
One principal who requested anonymity, told WBEZ that a parent reported a child with a positive case early last week. But as of Friday, neither he nor the parent had been contacted by the district’s tracers. Meanwhile, the child’s exposed classmates remained in school. The school district sent the principal a notice on Friday saying that, “Due to a surge in cases, the contact tracing team is taking longer to resolve cases.”
Another principal said he found out he could independently switch a class to quarantine after learning of a case. He has done so, even though he does not necessarily feel like he is trained to make these calls. Also, he has not heard anything official from the contact tracing team. “I do not have an MD at the end of my name,” said the principal, who also did not want to be named because he worries about retribution for criticizing the school district.
He also notes that not all principals are aware they can flip a class to remote and that some might err on keeping students in classes, rather than quarantining. The Chicago Teachers Union bargaining team said they saw the guidance given to principals and it said quarantining a class after an exposure is optional and not even recommended.
Nora Flanagan, a teacher at Northside College Prep and a parent, said her school and the one her children attend are well run. And yet, it is “chaos.”
“Administrators are not just leading their schools, they’re functioning as bootleg contact tracers because CPS didn’t staff enough people in those roles,” she said.
Flanagan said she found out she had been exposed to a positive case on Sunday and spent the day looking for a rapid COVID test. She agrees with other staff and parents who say the school district should offer exposed students and staff COVID-19 tests on site.
The school district had promised to roll out voluntary regular COVID testing to all schools starting Wednesday. But, in a statement on Tuesday, CPS now says the program won’t be “fully implemented until the end of September.”
CPS officials said 9,400 students of about 300,000 signed up to be tested regularly. CPS says by the end of this week, 170 of the city’s roughly 500 traditional public schools will be offering testing for students.
Los Angeles Unified School District is doing regular testing for students 11 and younger and is depending on the county health department to do contact tracing in schools. It also is mandating vaccines for students 12 and older.