CHICAGO — As Chicago Public Schools students returned from winter break last week amid the city’s biggest COVID-19 surge, some parents opted to keep their kids home instead. Then, classes were canceled altogether after teachers refused to work in school buildings.
Now, the district and the Chicago Teachers Union have reached a tentative deal for classes to resume Wednesday. But some parents still say they’ll keep their kids home over fears for their families’ health and because of a lack of reliable testing available.
Nelly Martinez, a Hegewisch resident whose children attend George Washington elementary and high schools in East Side, suffered a family tragedy when her uncle died of COVID-19 two days before Christmas.
The virus has since swept through her family members, most of whom live on the Southeast Side, Martinez said.
All of Martinez’s immediate family is vaccinated except her 4-year-old son, who attends pre-kindergarten at Washington Elementary and is too young to get the shots. She kept her kids home from school last week to protect the health of her son and the community, she said.
“I’m afraid for my son,” said Martinez, who added the coronavirus situation in schools is “a mess.”
Martinez “would like to keep [her children] home until the beginning of February,” she said. “I don’t think we’re gonna be safe for a couple more weeks, to be honest.”
Martinez’s kids weren’t alone in staying home after winter break, as two-thirds of Washington High students were absent Jan. 4, teacher Sophia Kortchmar said at a recent community meeting organized by teachers and parents.
About one-third of students were absent from Washington Elementary after winter break, a local school council member said last week.
Ebony Scrutchens’ children, who attend Suder Montessori Elementary School on the Near West Side and Westinghouse College Prep in Humboldt Park, are also among the students who stayed home last week and won’t return this week. She doesn’t have a choice — her family is under quarantine until next week after she tested positive for coronavirus Friday and her son’s classmate tested positive.
“We can’t go back,” said Scrutchens, a special education classroom assistant at a West Side public school. “I myself am in a CPS-ordered quarantine. My 7-year-old — somebody [who tested positive] was at school Monday and Tuesday — so her class is switched to remote.”
Scrutchens kept her kids home once winter break ended, as they never received take-home COVID-19 tests from the district and struggled to get tested elsewhere in the final days of winter break, she said.
“Once I saw the issues with [the district’s] testing and attempted to go get them tested [elsewhere], the facilities around Chicago were jam-packed and/or not offering results for several days,” she said.
About half of students at the school where Scrutchens works were absent last week before classes were canceled, though she showed up to the school building for work all week, she said.
Despite testing positive Friday, Scrutchens said Tuesday she had not yet been contacted by district contact tracers.
“Anybody that I was with in the building Friday, they would be at work … today,” she said Tuesday. “This is the slow process that we’re having an issue with. … Unless I reach out to [coworkers] myself, they wouldn’t even know to get tested.”
Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the city would release details of the reopening agreement once the union gives its final approval, but she outlined some of the terms Monday night. The two sides agreed on more contact tracing, masks and incentives for getting more substitutes into CPS, the mayor said.
With Chicago’s coronavirus positivity rate at 18.9 percent, CPS parent Bridget Murphy called on CPS to implement opt-out testing — as used in dozens of Illinois school districts and some local charter schools — when classes resume in person.
Murphy, who has two kids at Volta Elementary in Albany Park, sent them to school Jan. 3 before she “regretted it” and kept them home the next day. They’re likely to remain at home all this week, she said.
“We all, in our case, want to go back to in-person,” Murphy said. “But we can do so much better to make it safe and make it consistent.”
Lightfoot has blasted demands for opt-out testing as “morally repugnant.” Only about 16 percent of CPS families have so far opted in to regular testing, but union leaders said Monday they expect those numbers to rise as teachers and other staff members reach out to families about testing and vaccinations.
“There are so many [things] that our children need: More testing, they need more vaccines, and also need access to better masking,” said Kristin Brody, a parent and local school council member at Goudy Technology Academy in Uptown.
Brody’s son stayed home Jan. 3 and 4, and she will “definitely hold off” on bringing him back to class as she’s concerned about the high infection rates and testing struggles throughout the district.
“Just because there’s an outbreak in one class, that can have a huge effect for the rest of the school,” Brody said.
With coronavirus concerns predating the Omicron wave, and with an uncertain future ahead, some parents said the district must relax its rules about who is eligible for remote learning.
Unvaccinated students in “close contact” with an infected person must quarantine for 10 days, according to district policy. It’s the only way kids are eligible for remote learning, unless they were deemed “medically fragile” and accepted into the district’s Virtual Academy.
Vanessa De Leon’s immunocompromised son, and others with medical concerns who were ruled ineligible for the Virtual Academy, should have the option of taking online classes if they feel safest doing so, she said.
“I understand that it’s not the same for everyone,” De Leon said. “Every family goes through different circumstances [and has] different ideas … . We should all be getting the opportunity to pick, and they’re not giving us that option.”
De Leon has two children at Washington Elementary. She “thought it would be best” to keep them home after winter break, even before the teachers union voted to work remotely and CPS canceled classes in response, she said.
“I’ve seen [the cancelation] coming. My husband works in health care — we knew it, I knew it,” De Leon said. “… I had made that decision before they even announced it, to keep my kids home at least a week to see how things played out in school.”
De Leon’s family will “play it by ear and see how things start to fall into place” before returning to school, though they’ll stay home Wednesday as her son gets his second vaccine dose.
She intends to meet with her son’s “team of doctors” to gauge their input on “what would be best for him, my family and his sister” before sending him back, she said.
CPS and the teachers union tentatively agreed on metrics for switching individual classrooms or schools to virtual learning, Lightfoot said Monday. Such a move will depend in part on student and staff absences.
CPS agreed to shut down a building for at least five days “if 30 percent or more of its teachers are absent for two consecutive days because of positive cases or quarantines, and if substitutes can’t get the absences under 25 percent,” according to the Sun-Times. A school would also close if 40 percent of its students were quarantined.
“A one-size-fits-all approach” to restarting school “just will not work for all families, schools and situations,” CPS parent Tierra Pearson said at a press conference Monday organized by Kids First Chicago.
Pearson’s children attend Clemente Community Academy in West Town and DePriest Elementary in Austin.
All three of her kids stayed home Jan. 3 and 4 after she and one child fell ill — though she said she would’ve kept them home after break anyway given her concerns with CPS’ testing process.
Pearson, whose youngest child has health issues and can’t be vaccinated, called on CPS to offer “flexible learning options that can meet the needs of different families.”
“Remote learning is in no way easy as far as kids being able to focus,” and her children have reasons for being excited to return in person, but such a transition must be done safely, Pearson said.
Prior to the district and union’s tentative agreement, about 59 percent of students were absent from Spry Elementary in Little Village Jan. 3, teachers said at a press conference Monday.
At Benito Juarez Community Academy, 44 percent of students were absent Jan. 3 and 36 percent were absent Jan. 4, according to teacher Liz Winfield, an associate delegate for the union.
Positive coronavirus cases, quarantine due to infections in students’ households and safety concerns are among the reasons for the absences, Winfield said.
At Budlong Elementary in Lincoln Square, 30 percent of students were absent Jan. 3 and 22 percent were absent Jan. 4, according to an email from principal Naomi Nakayama.
Reporters Alex V. Hernandez and Madison Savedra contributed to this report.
Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers.
Subscribe to Block Club Chicago, an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.