CHICAGO — With schools set to fully reopen Monday, Chicago says it will drop the electronic COVID-19 screener it previously required families to complete daily before students stepped onto campus. Instead, it will institute what amounts to an honor system.
The district is asking parents to screen their children in good faith daily using an online checklist of symptoms and fill out an “attestation” form four times a year confirming that practice, the district’s interim CEO, José Torres, said Tuesday night in a letter that introduced a new reopening guide for parents five days before school resumes. But parents no longer have to submit anything to the school electronically.
“Why would we do that?” Torres told the school board Wednesday morning about eliminating the screener. “Because we trust our families and trust our communities to protect each other.”
The district will bring back simultaneous instruction in classrooms where some children are sent home under quarantine orders and others aren’t, Torres also said in Tuesday’s letter. The return of simultaneous instruction — in which teachers are required to do double-duty and teach some children remotely and others in the classroom — has been a lingering point of disagreement with the teachers’ union, which has called for a more robust remote option.
The new guidelines come as the city’s teachers union and some Chicago aldermen and parents’ groups press for stronger safety protocols, including a more widely available virtual option and strict measures for quarantining and closing school buildings — thresholds the district has argued would needlessly disrupt learning. The union’s top leadership has said that educators, who returned to buildings this week, will be present for students on the first day — but it has not ruled out future action if an agreement between the school district and union isn’t reached.
Chicago currently is offering a “virtual academy” option only for students with specific medical needs, in line with a requirement from the Illinois school board that limits when districts can offer remote options. Few families have signed up, and some have complained the process was confusing.
But at Wednesday’s meeting, Torres said he made a commitment to union President Jesse Sharkey that if public health officials find community transmission has reached dangerous levels, the interim CEO would personally approach Gov. J.B. Pritzker to advocate for an emergency declaration allowing broader remote learning.
In the Tuesday guidance to parents, the district also said it will offer each of its employees a COVID test every week as part of its voluntary surveillance testing program. It will also test weekly all students whose families sign a release form at the start of the school year — as long as community transmission rates remain moderate to high. Those tests will be free to any employees or students experiencing symptoms, the district said.
The union had accused the district of trying to walk back a commitment to test all students — shared in an earlier letter to parents — during reopening agreement negotiations. Some educators have also said that last spring, opportunities to get tested often came while they were in the middle of teaching classes, resulting in a high opt-out rate for the surveillance program.
The district and union have also failed to reach agreement on protocol for what happens when COVID-19 cases are reported in a classroom. Largely in line with federal guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the district has said unvaccinated students who are in close contact with a positive case must quarantine for 14 days, but vaccinated students may return to classrooms as long as they don’t have symptoms. The union would like to see stricter quarantine measures and more done to ensure 3 feet of social distancing when possible, not “when convenient,” as Sharkey put it Wednesday — from moving lunches outdoors to transferring large classes to roomier spaces.
“There are many steps we can be taking that we aren’t,” he told the school board.
What safety measures to implement amid a rise in cases due to the contagious delta variant continues to be a vexing issue for districts across the country.
According to a Center for Reinventing Public Education research brief released Monday, a quarter of the country’s 100 largest school districts now include some sort of preventative testing measure for students and staff and two-thirds of those districts — including Chicago Public Schools — now have mask mandates. But when to quarantine students, for how long, and how to educate those at home is an issue in flux.
According to the researchers, the country’s largest districts continue to take different approaches to the length of quarantine time and whether vaccinated students are exempt. In addition, 55 of the 100 districts reviewed now offer a full-time remote option for all students, not just the medically fragile.
Other protocol updates shared this week include:
- The district will not require temperature checks at the schools entry because a fever isn’t the most reliable way to tell if a student has contacted COVID-19.
- For students with disabilities, parents can apply for a cloth face covering accommodation if medically necessary. The accommodation form must be completed by a medical professional, and submitted to the school’s principal or school nurse.
- For students with hands-on services in their IEPs like speech-language pathology, physical therapy, and occupational therapy, the district has given therapists medical masks and face shields. In the case of speech therapy, the district has given therapists clear masks.
- The district this week reiterated its plans for HEPA air purifiers for each occupied classroom, a hospital-grade disinfectant sprayer for every school, and hand sanitizer stations in high-traffic areas.
- Chicago will require proof of vaccination or weekly testing for student athletes in grades 5 through 12.
Samantha Smylie contributed to this report.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.