CHICAGO — Chicago Public Schools is promoting new federal research saying in-classroom learning can be relatively safe — with certain precautions — as the school district and Chicago Teachers Union are trying to hammer out a deal on reopening schools.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researchers released a new study and policy paper Tuesday assessing the risks of in-school coronavirus transmission. Researchers said the lack of extensive data on the issue has made it difficult to say how safe it is for teachers and students to be in school at this stage of the pandemic.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot, CPS CEO Janice Jackson and CTU leaders have clashed over in-school learning. City leaders have insisted classroom learning is safe, must remain an option for the parents who want it and is critical for Black and Latino students who are falling behind in remote learning. Union leaders have said in-person learning is too dangerous for students, teachers and their families, at least until teachers can be fully vaccinated.
CPS touted the new research Tuesday in arguing their position. Union leaders say the study doesn’t shine light on the risks faced in a major urban school district and that CPS officials are resisting some of the measures highlighted by the CDC that would make schools safer.
The study examined students and staff in 17, K-12 schools in rural Wisconsin between August and November 2020. It involved about 3,300 students doing in-person learning.
Researchers found that during that time, about 190 students and staff contracted coronavirus but only seven of those cases — all students — are believed to have been caused by in-school spread. A high majority of students and staff wore masks and also practiced social distancing, maintained small group settings and quarantined after potential exposure.
That along with other recent studies of school districts in the U.S. and abroad led researchers to conclude with proper mitigation efforts, virus transmission in schools is rare, or at least is lower than in other community settings. Precautions like “increasing room air ventilation,” “expanding screening testing” and “options for online education” for students and staff at increased risk all can help lower the risk, researchers wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The CDC study affirms other reports that profess the relative safety of returning to in-person learning. The Chicago Department of Public Health also commissioned a study on the topic, finding that local Catholic schools saw minimal coronavirus transmission after opening this year.
CTU leaders have said studies on coronavirus in schools have relied on other districts that do not have the same demographics or density as CPS. The CDC study looks at students in rural Wisconsin and throughout North Carolina, but it did not appear to consider New York City schools, which has had a complicated return to classrooms.
Chris Geovanis, union spokesperson, said the effective COVID-19 mitigation protocols mentioned in the CDC study are the same provisions the union is fighting for at the bargaining table. The district is pushing back on some of its requests, including increased rapid testing and facility upgrades, Geovanis said.
“CPS has promised some of these things, but epically failed at delivering them,” Geovanis said in a statement. “We want an agreement that is enforceable.”
As CPS began reopening classes this month, some schools in the district have seen cases of coronavirus among staff. At Uptown’s McCutcheon Elementary, two staffers tested positive for COVID-19 and eight others were placed in quarantine after one week of staff in classrooms.
At least 64 schools have seen a positive coronavirus case since teachers and staff returned to the building this month, according to the teachers union.
The CDC study acknowledges that school-related cases of COVID-19 have been reported, but “there has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission,” researchers wrote.
In one case study, the CDC examined 90,000 students students throughout 11 North Carolina districts that opened for school this fall. Over a nine-week period, there were 32 infections acquired in schools, 773 community acquired infections and no student-to-staff transmission, according to the CDC.
There have been instances of “large outbreaks” in school settings, the CDC said. One of the largest examples is from Israel, when a high school in May has over 175 cases after two students showed up while “mildly symptomatic,” according to the CDC.
Contributing factors included crowded classrooms and recycled air via air-conditioner use during a heat wave, the CDC said.
If similar conditions are avoided and other protocols adhered to, schools should be safe to reopen, according to the CDC.
“The preponderance of available evidence from the fall school semester has been reassuring insofar as the type of rapid spread that was frequently observed in congregate living facilities or high-density worksites has not been reported in education settings in schools,” the CDC said in its report.
The teachers union approved a measure to work remotely to start this week, when kindergarten through eighth-grade teachers were scheduled to go back to classrooms. Students that opted in to in-person learning are set to return to classrooms Monday.
In response to the union action, CPS pushed back the start for K-8th grade teachers until Wednesday, giving the two sides time to reach an agreement and avoid a potential strike.
President Joe Biden has even weighed in on the fraught topic, responding to a question about the situation in Chicago by saying: “The teachers I know, they want to work, they just want to work in a safe environment.”
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