WOODLAWN — Woodlawn neighbors and SEIU Local 73 held a candlelight vigil Thursday evening to remember the life of JonL Bush, a CPS worker who died from coronavirus amid rising cases at Andrew Carnegie Elementary School on the South Side.
Friends, family and Carnegie teachers gathered at the school, 1414 E. 61st Place, to honor Bush, a Local 73 member who worked as a special education classroom assistant before his death on Nov. 26. Bush was fully vaccinated and had received a booster shot but died from a breakthrough case, his sisters and mother confirmed.
Carnegie Elementary has seen a spike in COVID-19 cases since Thanksgiving break began Nov. 24. CPS spokespeople did not respond when asked whether Bush’s illness and death could be traced to the school.
At the vigil, speakers called for better COVID-19 prevention at CPS schools and shared stories about Bush’s impact as a father, brother, CPS worker and neighbor. He worked for the district since 2012, according to CPS officials.
Ceres Jonelle, Bush’s sister, called him compassionate, funny and “the smartest person I’ve ever met in my life.”
Another sister, Dette Bush, who worked as a substitute dance teacher at Carnegie alongside her brother, said his death has pushed her to stop working at Carnegie until COVID-19 protocols in CPS schools are improved. In her job, she visits 25 different classes, she said.
“I am not going back to work because it is not safe,” she said. “… Yes, I am fully vaccinated. But if I go in 25 different classrooms each week, then I could potentially take that to … so many different children.”
For Dette Bush, it’s also hard returning to a place where she worked closely with her brother.
Dette Bush claimed at times hand sanitizer containers weren’t filled, there weren’t any dividers to separate students during school hours and there were typically too many people in the building at a time to adequately social distance.
As cases rise, Carnegie teacher Faith Mitchell said several teachers have been working remotely, without permission, while facing potential lock-outs of online systems.
“Whatever needs to be done to prevent this from happening, we need to get it done,” Bush’s sister Dette said. “I don’t know if it’s the Mayor’s Office. I don’t know what department needs to get it together. But they need to get it together.”
Carnegie staff have said eight of the school’s 21 classrooms are in quarantine this week. SEIU Local 73 officials said another union member at the school also recently tested positive for COVID-19.
“At the bare minimum … if schools are having huge cases or situations where we have eight classrooms just this week alone that are shut down, then support the families with being remote so that we can stay safe so that we don’t have to have another situation like Mr. Bush,” Mitchell said.
Carnegie reported 11 cases total this school year prior to the break, according to the district. As of Sunday, 113 people at Carnegie were isolated or quarantined. Prior to Thanksgiving break, the highest daily total was 48.
The district’s Office of Student Health and Wellness and the Chicago Department of Public Health investigated “multiple recent cases” at Carnegie and “found no evidence of widespread or unchecked in-school transmission,” CPS spokesperson Mary Fergus said.
Some classes have moved to remote learning as a result of recent positive tests but, Fergus said, there’s currently no public health recommendation or plan to close Carnegie Elementary School.
A two-part “vaccination event” will be held at the school 10 a.m.-noon Dec. 13 and Jan. 3, Fergus said. CPS COVID-19 testing was conducted at the school Wednesday and will continue Dec. 15.
“Chicago Public Schools extends its deepest and most sincere condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of the Andrew Carnegie Elementary employee who passed away late last month,” Fergus said. “While this employee’s tragic death on Nov. 26 has shocked and grieved us all, the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence supports the truth that vaccination remains the most effective weapon and protection from the virus.”
SEIU Local 73 has demanded CPS take more steps to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in schools, including implementing a metric for closing schools, hosting vaccination events, increasing COVID-19 testing, better cleaning schools and filling custodial vacancies.
Representatives from the Chicago Teachers Union also said CPS is failing to take action on rising COVID-19 cases in CPS schools. CTU Vice President Stacey Gates said while conversations with the city are ongoing, CPS needs to implement robust testing programs at the schools and school-wide quarantines when COVID-19 cases are confirmed.
At the majority of Chicago schools, fewer than 10 percent of students have signed up for the district’s school-based COVID-19 testing, Chalkbeat reported last month.
Lightfoot dismissed calls for CPS to offer coronavirus testing and vaccination options at all schools as “not driven by science and data” and a “campaign season” talking point.
“Frankly, it’s a little distressing that when somebody has died, they’re using that as an opportunity to score political points,” Lightfoot said of the Chicago Teachers Union at a news conference Monday. “… The plan that’s in place is a strong plan.
“The science tells us and experience tells us [vaccine and testing access at each school is] not the best way to get things done, because you don’t see the level of uptake when you have resources spread that thin.”
Gates responded: “The people of the city who tell us that they care about us when campaign season rolls around, I don’t see you right now. You don’t feel the energy of loss and sorrow. … We should not have to beg. We should not have to mourn for dignity, respect and safety.”
Illinois Sen. Robert Peters called the situation “painful and exhausting.”
“[JonL] did everything that he was supposed to do,” Dette Bush said. “The other people who were supposed to do something didn’t do what they were supposed to do and now we have some of the rest of our lives without him.”
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