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In Backing CPS Reopening, Health Department Studied COVID-19 In Catholic Schools — Which Presents Problems, Critics Say

A study by the city's health department monitoring coronavirus spread in the Catholic School system shows in-person learning is relatively safe, city officials said. But some educators say the study is flawed.

Morris the rabbit pays teachers a visit as they returned to Brentano Elementary Math & Science Academy Monday in Logan Square for the first time since March, when schools closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Teachers and staffers at the school say it's not safe in the school so they're working outside in 27-degree weather.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — In endorsing Chicago Public Schools’ reopening plan, the Chicago Department of Public Health is leaning on a study commissioned by the agency that officials say confirms the relative safety of in-person learning.

Health department and CPS officials appeared at a press conference Tuesday after half of the district’s teachers who’d been ordered back to classrooms stayed home the day before. A CDPH department leader announced they published a medical study that showed low levels of coronavirus transmission in local, non-public schools.

In sharing results from that study, Dr. Marielle Fricchione, a medical director for the health department, said the agency is “fully in support” of CPS’ reopening plan.

“I hope that this publication helps physicians and the city’s schools … have increased confidence that an option to return to school is the right thing to do,” Fricchione said at the news conference. “This data adds to the growing suggestion that an option for in-person learning is a safe thing to do.”

But for teachers afraid of becoming severely ill or even dying from the virus, the study has a glaring problem: Mainly that local, non-public schools studied by the health department have little to nothing in common with Chicago’s public schools.

The study monitored around 20,000 students enrolled in in-person learning at local Catholic schools. The students included in the health department’s study are 44 percent white, 20 percent Black and 29 percent Hispanic. CPS schools are 11 percent white, 36 percent Black and 47 percent Hispanic.

Dennis Kosuth, a CPS school nurse and CTU delegate, said many of those parents he works with are low-wage essential workers who have been more at risk during the pandemic.

“I don’t know how you compare people who attend Catholic schools with the general population of the city of Chicago,” Kosuth said. “Even one child getting sick is a problem because they can bring it home.”

‘Data-Driven Reopening’

Returning to in-person learning at CPS has become a fraught issue for Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS chief Janice Jackson. They have pushed hard for the plan, saying teachers will be punished and can be fired if they don’t return.

This week marked the first time some teachers had to return to their classrooms, with CPS planning a phased reopening starting with pre-kindergarten and special needs classes. About half of teachers who were recalled refused to show up Monday to school buildings, while others protested the measure by working outside in 27-degree weather.

A majority of Chicago aldermen have also said they have concerns about the in-person learning plan.

But in studying the spread of COVID-19 in local schools that have opened, city public health officials concluded in-school coronavirus transmission levels are lower than that of the general community.

The paper was authored by Fricchione, Dr. Jennifer Y. Seo and Health Department Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady. It was published in the Journal of Public Health and Management Practice.

In studying the students, mostly enrolled in local Catholic schools, the health department found coronavirus mitigation strategies — masks, social distancing and hand hygiene — kept classroom virus spread at lower levels than the rest of the city. At the news conference, Fricchione endorsed CPS’ coronavirus mitigation strategies.

“We worked to use the data we received to answer the question of whether students and staff spread COVID in the classroom when layered mitigation strategies were in place,” health department spokeswoman Alyse Kittner said in a statement. “The study showed lower COVID-19 attack rate in the school setting than in the community in the same time period.”

The study looked at 19,500 students enrolled in in-person learning at local Catholic schools. From the start of the Catholic school year on Aug. 17 to Oct. 4, the department tracked cases across 91 schools with 2,750 teachers and staff.

In that time, there were 59 cases of COVID-19 among 31 schools, according to the study. Of the cases, 20 were among staff members and 39 were among students. The highest number of cases in one school was eight.

Thirty-three of the student COVID-19 cases were considered “school-associated cases,” while 14 staff cases were given that designation. School-associated cases are transmissions that occurred during school sessions when the person was in school during the infectious period or if the person was in schools within 14 days of another infectious case.

Three coronavirus “clusters” were identified among the 31 schools, according to the study.

Under a city public health order, schools in the city must report clusters of two or more cases to the health agency, giving the department useful data on school transmission, Kittner said.

Two of those clusters were attributed to “non-adherence to physical distancing outside of class time.” The health department “could not rule out transmission in the classroom” for the other cluster, according to the study.

The study also looked at the COVID-19 “attack rate” of students. An attack rate is the proportion of people who become ill after being exposed to a virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The COVID-19 attack rate in archdiocese school students was 0.2 percent during the study duration, while the rate for staff was 0.5 percent. In both cases, that is lower than the attack rate for the general school age population of the city (0.4 percent) and the rate for working-age city residents (0.7 percent), according to the health department’s analysis.

The numbers mirror other reports which show school transmission levels are lower than community levels, according to the health department.

“We all have to acknowledge that walking out the door is not a zero-risk proposition in a pandemic,” Fricchione said. “The option for public education is the right thing for children and families right now.”

Credit: Chicago Mayor’s Office
Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS CEO Janice Jackson visit CPS teachers Monday.

‘My Biggest Concern Is The Positivity Rate’

Coronavirus mitigation efforts may keep school transmission levels low, but that is not good enough when the virus is still raging in Chicago, Kosuth said.

The teachers union has asked that schools not be reopened until the city’s COVID-19 positivity rate is below 3 percent. The city’s positivity rate is 10.7 percent as of Thursday, up from 8.4 percent one week ago.

With so much community spread, opponents of CPS’ plan fear there are likely to be issues with virus transmission at school. One case of school spread is too many, given that many CPS families are on the front lines of the pandemic, Kosuth said.

“If positivity rates are 1, 2 or 3 percent, I would say the protocols are probably safe to bring people back,” Kosuth said. “It just doesn’t make sense to bring people into schools right now.”

Some Catholic schools have had to temporarily close after seeing positive cases. The Archdiocese of Chicago Catholic Schools switched to remote learning for two weeks after Christmas break so families could quarantine if they’d traveled or had gatherings.

Plus in CPS, 83 percent of students are Black and Latino, Kosuth said.

The pandemic already has disproportionately impacted communities of color, so the potential impact of CPS is more concerning for vulnerable families and communities, Kosuth said.

Lightfoot and Jackson have said having students return is a matter of equity as the district’s Black and Latino students are falling behind and have been hit the hardest by remote learning.

But those issues can more easily be addressed by the city, Kosuth said. Helping a family battle a coronavirus outbreak is much harder.

“Those are fixable problems,” he said. “You can get more internet, get people iPads.”

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