Just over a week into the school year, nearly 3,000 Chicago Public Schools students and staff have been identified as a close contact of someone who had COVID-19 at school, new district data shows.
As parents and teachers are being alerted, they are complaining that the district is falling short in providing accurate information and that communication has been chaotic, leaving them with more questions than answers.
Late Wednesday, the school district’s updated COVID-19 tracker said that between Aug. 29 and Sept. 8 there were 161 COVID-19 cases among CPS adults and children. This week, 400 close contacts were identified at the city’s largest high school — Lane Tech College Prep — and nearly 170 at Washington High School on the Southeast Side.
CPS says these do not represent school-based transmissions and that numerous studies have shown schools are not sites of significant COVID-19 transmission. The district is updating its COVID tracker weekly on Wednesdays. This data, which includes tallies of all cases and close contacts since school began on Aug. 30, does not include charter schools.
The data appears to undercount the number of students whose learning has been disrupted so far by COVID-19. WBEZ talked to several parents and teachers who reported that their children or students were quarantined after being told by CPS they were exposed to COVID-19, but their schools are not listed on CPS’ tracker.
Confusion and questions
Meanwhile, parents say they are confused and worried that CPS isn’t focusing enough on preventing the spread of the virus. They also say there isn’t enough support as students have to shift back to remote learning.
“CPS has to have a more robust plan in place for when this happens,” said parent Stephanie Laine-Nazaire. Her twin boys are quarantining after being exposed and are now learning from home. “On Friday, teachers were grasping for straws because they had in-person [learning] in mind and now they are back to remote.”
Another mother, Rachel McDermott, said she was informed Friday evening that one of her children had been exposed to the virus and would have to return to remote learning. Though she has three children at Prussing Elementary in Portage Park, the email did not indicate which one. McDermott figured it out through the school’s Facebook group.
McDermott said all she heard from the mayor and the school district all summer was the need for students to return in person. “I had no idea that remote was even possible,” McDermott said. “I did not even know this could happen.”
Sandy Viveros said she was also “shocked” to get an email saying her 6-year-old was exposed to a COVID-19 case and needed to be quarantined. “My first thought was, ‘Is he going to be okay? Is he infected?’ ” she said. “I am just mentally drained right now.”
Viveros’ son and 11- year-old daughter go to Barry Elementary in Hermosa on the Northwest Side. Like other parents, she said she is unclear what to do about the sibling of her exposed child. Her daughter is too young to be vaccinated and, because of her son, is now exposed. But the school district insists she go to school and is not offering remote learning for her.
Laine-Nazaire said she is worried the school district is not doing enough to tell parents what is going on. Her sons, both of whom have autism, attend Murray Language Academy in Hyde Park on the South Side.
Two days after school started, she received a message about a case at Murray. During the next school day, she was told they were a close contact of an exposed student, but she didn’t have to pick them right away. Laine-Nazaire said she understood because parents were working. But, on the other hand, she felt exposure should be limited immediately.
She went to pick her twins up early anyway and there she learned they were not a close contract of the original case, but another subsequent positive case.
Laine-Nazaire said she never received any communication from the school district about that subsequent case. And Murray was listed as having no cases on the school district’s COVID-19 tracker.
Also, there was nothing in any correspondence that she received telling her to get her children tested for COVID-19. That’s something she would like to see happen before students return to school. Students are supposed to quarantine for 14 days.
The school district says students in quarantine should receive teacher-led remote instruction for at least 25% of their time, with the rest of the day spent working on assignments independently. But how that works will differ from school to school.
A teacher from an elementary school in Logan Square said she and others were frazzled when they learned that one of the third grade classes was going remote. The teacher said on Monday barely any students logged into class, but she is hoping turnout will improve. The teacher asked not to be identified because she didn’t want to hurt her principal.
Mike Smith, who teaches at Englewood STEM High School, said it took two days for students to be told they were exposed. He said some 154 students were told to quarantine.
He has classes where a few of his students are at home and others are learning in the classroom. Smith is now faced with the challenge of instructing students in two different places.
Smith said parents were told their children were to quarantine before the school was informed. That meant the school started getting calls and had no idea what to say.
“It’s a situation where people are confused and upset and they’re looking for answers and what CPS has for people right now just isn’t working,” he said.
Smith also said he doesn’t know how the school district is going to stop the spread of COVID-19. There was COVID-19 testing at his school on Friday, he notes, but permission slips weren’t available until the afternoon.
Smith is part of the Chicago Teachers Union bargaining team that is negotiating with the school district on a reopening agreement.
Smith and CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said the union has been hearing all week from teachers and parents who they say are scared. Davis Gates said that the mayor and the school district should have planned better, including having a testing program running on the first day of school on Aug. 30 and stricter safety measures. CPS says its testing program will be in place by Sept. 15.
“It doesn’t feel good that this school year has already gotten off to a very rocky start,” Davis Gates said. “Every educator worth his or her salt knows that you start the school year with intention. You begin the school year with organization, because that is how you are able to form good habits. and I don’t know what we’re forming now, but a ball of confusion.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of COVID-19 cases and close contacts associated with CPS schools so far this year. The correct information is 161 cases and 2,941 close contacts.