CHICAGO — As Monday marked the first day back from winter break for Chicago Public Schools, parents and some aldermen aired concerns that the school district’s plans for detecting and managing COVID-19 cases are inadequate and were not communicated to members of the City Council.
The surge in COVID-19 cases, fueled by the highly contagious Omicron variant of the virus, raged through the end of 2021 and into the new year as the city is seeing an average of 3,940 new cases of the virus per day, up 42 percent from one week ago.
Chicago’s positivity rate was 17.2 percent on Monday, up from 8.9 percent one week earlier, and hospitalizations due to COVID-19 were up 38 percent from last week. The city is averaging 10 deaths per day due to the virus.
As a way to deal with the current surge in COVID cases, CPS sent rapid tests home with 150,000 students across 300 schools in “high-risk communities” and encouraged parents of other students to get their kids tested before returning to school on Monday.
But many families who submitted test results for their CPS students were notified that there were issues with their submittals, Block Club reported on Monday. Additionally, CPS teachers may not show up to teach in-person on Wednesday as the Chicago Teachers Union has raised concerns with the district’s plans to keep students and staff safe and mitigate the spread of COVID.
Several aldermen, including Ald. Maria Hadden (49th), took to social media over the weekend to voice their concern with CPS’ plans for bringing kids back to school after the winter break.
“Alderpeople aren’t really being kept in the loop, or at least not in any way that’s uniform,” Hadden told The Daily Line, adding that she had heard some aldermen during the past week were briefed on CPS’ plans for returning to school.
Hadden said she wants kids to be back in schools and parents want their kids to be back, but it needs to be done “in an organized and safe way.”
Hadden said she has been in contact with school principals in her ward who have been “raising concerns with staffing shortages” and not having enough staff to adequately serve students.
Additionally, Hadden said she recently emailed Ald. Michael Scott (24th), who chairs the City Council Committee on Education and Child Development, asking about a resolution (R2021-937) she, Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) and Ald. Rossana Rodriguez-Sachez (33rd) filed in September calling for a hearing with CPS officials regarding the district’s COVID plans. The resolution has nine sponsors.
The resolution details that CPS students returned to school on Aug. 23 while the Delta was the main COVID-19 variant and “Chicago Public Schools made changes to their return to school plan, removing some of the covid-19 mitigation measures.”
“Parents and students around the city are raising concerns about slow contact tracing and covid exposure notification, involuntary disenrollment of students, and the lack of remote learning options,” the resolution continues. Hadden, Rodriguez-Sanchez and Taylor used the resolution to call for a City Council hearing on CPS’ “covid safety plans, protocols, and remote learning options for students.”
Scott has not scheduled a meeting for a hearing on CPS’ plans. The education committee met four times in 2021 — twice on Jan. 11, including for a “hearing to discuss the Re-Opening of Chicago Public Schools.”
The impetus for a hearing came from concerns that CPS was facing staffing shortages, testing uncertainty and issues with cleaning school buildings, Hadden said, adding she was initially asked to hold off on the hearing as district CEO Pedro Martinez had just started in the position when the proposal was filed.
Still, Hadden said aldermen should be kept in the loop with CPS’ plans for addressing the skyrocketing number of COVID-19 cases Chicago is seeing
“Council hasn’t really been involved” in CPS’ reopening plans despite hearing from concerned constituents and from school principals “about their staffing concerns” and schools’ need for COVID tests and a uniform testing policy, Hadden said.
Scott told The Daily Line on Monday that he is working with CPS, teachers union leaders and aldermen to come to a “solutions-based” way to address concerns with this month’s return to school.
City Council hearings can turn into ways for different sides of an issue to “stick [their] flag in the ground” and don’t necessarily end in action, Scott said, adding he is hoping for “something more solutions-based than to just have a hearing.”
“Everybody has a vested interest in making sure schools and children are safe,” Scott said, adding he has “talked to both sides” and wants to ensure aldermen stay informed in the process of “coming up with a solutions-based practical solution to this problem.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot did not take questions from reporters during a Monday public appearance, but briefly talked about schools during a Monday morning interview on CNBC.
Lightfoot said remote learning at the beginning of the pandemic had a “devastating effect” on students and families.” The mayor charged the Chicago Teachers Union with “saber rattling” as the union calls for stricter testing requirements and specific metrics to determine when schools should switch to remote learning.
“We know that learning loss was profound” and “that there were huge gaps in achievement,” Lightfoot said. “We know that the mental health and trauma issues of our students [were] real, and we know that it was devastating for families, particularly those families where the parents couldn’t afford not to work.”
The mayor reiterated what she and public officials have said about the safety of schools.
“Fundamentally we know our schools are safe, our schools are not the source of significant spread,” Lightfoot said. “The issue is community spread, but we need to keep our kids in schools, which is what we’re going to do in Chicago.”