Pedro Martinez, CEO of Chicago Public Schools, speaks at a press conference promoting COVID-19 vaccination in Chicago communities of color at City Hall on Nov. 16, 2021. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

CHICAGO — As the city passes its omicron peak, Chicago Public Schools is considering a move to shorten its quarantine rules for unvaccinated students from 10 days to five days.

District CEO Pedro Martinez said Wednesday that the district was working to revise changes to quarantine policy to align with updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which in December recommended isolation for five days, and wearing a mask for an additional five days when around others. 

“By next week, I will be able to give you a very clear timeline,” Martinez said. “Absolutely, we are going to be adopting that, but I want to make sure we do it right.”

The move comes as Chicago restarts school operations after a standoff with its teachers union over safety measures that closed campuses to students for five days. Staffing shortages at schools due to COVID illnesses helped galvanize teachers, who voted to work remotely. The district refused. 

Chicago Public Schools is working with the city’s health commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady to identify and understand operational logistics and putting a plan in place at schools, Martinez said.

The news comes as the health commissioner announced the city had “formally passed the omicron peak.” 

“We are a long way from being out of the woods,” said Arwady, who urged unvaccinated residents to get immunized and for Chicagoans to follow mitigation measures to minimize spread.

Following changes to federal guidelines in December, school districts across the country are wrestling with the question of how long to quarantine students. Philadelphia schools Wednesday adopted a five-day quarantine. 

The Illinois State Board of Education last week aligned its quarantine guidance with the CDC, shortening isolation from 10 to five days as of Jan. 11.

In October, Chicago schools previously shortened its quarantine rules from 14 to 10 days for unvaccinated students.

The district currently requires unvaccinated students to quarantine for 10 days after known exposure to someone who is positive for COVID, such as a teacher or classmate. Other situations can trigger quarantines, such as travel on Chicago’s travel advisory.

As of Jan. 18, 13,236 students and 1,117 staff members were in quarantine, according to district data.

Across the district, 53% of 12- to 17-year-old students are fully vaccinated, compared with 32.8% of 5- to 11-year-old students who have received one dose, officials said.
About 111,653 are fully vaccinated and 146,524 students have at least one dose, Martinez said.

The district was committed to keeping students safe through its key strategies which includes:  expanding testing consent, testing capacity, increasing vaccination, and investing in more PPE, Martinez said. 

Before the winter break, the district had received parental consent for 40,000 students, which has now doubled to nearly 83,000, Martinez said.

The vast majority of the consent increase has been unvaccinated students, Martinez added.

The district has been focused on getting consent from schools with low consent rates and high rates of unvaccinated students, Martinez said.

The district, under an agreement with its teachers union, aims to get 100 percent of students consented for testing, with a plan to test at least 10% of each school population.

The district has been working to ramp up testing capacity. The district has reached a sustainable capacity of 10,000 tests per day, but has exceeded that with 17,000 per day on Tuesday alone, Martinez said.

School nurses and other school staffers with COVID-related duties will help support testing staff, Martinez said.

District data shows a 4.3% positivity from the 3,800 tests administered between Jan. 16 and Jan. 18. Last week, the district tested 35,126 students and staff and had a 5.4% positivity rate, data show.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.