Chicago Public Schools says it will distribute about 150,000 take-home COVID-19 test kits Friday to 309 schools in communities hit hard by the pandemic.
The news comes after CPS reported its highest weekly COVID-19 case count last week — 764 students and 246 adults. The district also reported its highest daily case count on Monday — 223 students and 59 adults. Last month CPS was recording about 300 to 400 total cases a week.
“In Chicago, we are in a wicked post- Thanksgiving COVID surge — 929 daily cases on average here in the city of Chicago. As the city goes, so goes CPS,” Dr. Kenneth Fox, CPS’ chief health officer, said at Wednesday’s monthly Chicago Board of Education meeting. “When cases surge in the city, so, too, do they surge at CPS. We’ve seen this before, and we are seeing it now.”
Schools picked to receive test kits are said to be in neighborhoods designated high risk for COVID-19, or they are elementary schools in neighborhoods deemed medium risk. Families who receive the kits are “strongly encouraged” to test students Dec. 28 and drop the sample at their nearest FedEx Drop Box that day to allow “adequate time” to get the result before students return from winter break Jan. 3. Students who test positive would be directed to isolate for 10 days from the testing date.
“I ask parents, I plead with parents: Please take advantage of this if your school is in one of these communities,” CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said at Wednesday’s meeting. “Take advantage of this test, especially with all the gatherings ... during Christmas. This way we’ll know that your child is not positive and, again, will help us to keep our schools safe.”
Illinois is also experiencing an increase in coronavirus cases. State health officials on Wednesday reported 9,784 new confirmed and probable cases of COVID-19, the second-highest total in a single day this year. Over the past week, the state has averaged 7,646 cases per day, up from 7,417 per day the previous week and 3,452 per day a month ago.
The state also reported 79 additional fatalities Wednesday, bringing the death toll to 27,013 since the pandemic began.
CPS and health officials sayindoor masking, social distancing, promoting strong hand hygiene and reporting cases promptly to the district’s contact tracing team are effective mitigation strategies. A CPS spokesperson said the district has 38 contact tracers plus five in training who could start taking cases after winter break. CPS started the school year with 24 contact tracers.
After one CPS parent told board members at Wednesday’s meeting she had not received enough notification of positive cases at her son’s school, Fox acknowledged “there are mistakes that happen. There are delays that occur. We hear about them, and we address them as they arise. But I think the protocol is the right one.”
At the board meeting, Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey renewed his call for a metric that would outline when a school or district would shift to remote learning. Students spent most of the last school year learning from home before CPS and CTU reached agreements to reopen buildings after tense negotiations.
“What I need you to understand is that if you do not formulate a clear guideline — a guardrail, if you will — that parents, the public and the members of my union can understand and have some confidence in, that it’s going to cause problems as we look to the new year,” Sharkey said.
“I’m not looking for a repeat of last winter. I still have nightmares and insomnia about that. But I’m also not going to be the frog who doesn’t jump out of the pot before I get boiled.”
Aside from the take-home test kits, CPS has a weekly testing program that’s mandatory for unvaccinated staff members and voluntary for students. About 40,000 students are registered for testing, though some students may choose not to participate in the program after they become vaccinated, Fox said.
The district said it has conducted more than 260,000 tests since the start of school.
About 0.83% of those who participated last week — 258 people — tested positive from 31,500 tests administered, according to CPS data.
The district directs unvaccinated people who come in close contact with an infected person to quarantine. About 6,800 students and 380 adults on Tuesday were in isolation because they tested positive or in quarantine because they were a close contact. Martinez said the district is being cautious by “over-quarantining,” and he expects quarantine numbers to rise.
“We’re flipping quite a few classrooms (to remote learning). ... Right now with cases surging, I can make a logical argument for it,” Martinez said. “But what I still worry about is the impact we have on parents.”
CPS is piloting a test-to-stay program in one classroom of one elementary school that would allow unvaccinated students to avoid quarantine through a series of negative COVID-19 tests.
About 13.3% of CPS students ages 5 to 11 have received at least one vaccine dose, according to district data. More than 55% of students between 12 and 17 and half of adult students obtained at least one shot. The district acknowledged a lag in uploading student vaccination records. Ninety percent of CPS staff are fully vaccinated, the district said.
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