CHICAGO — Parents and local leaders are raising questions about Chicago Public Schools’ system for tracking COVID-19 cases, with some saying officials are misleading the public about how the pandemic is affecting students, teachers and staff in the country’s third-largest school district.
CPS officials denied any wrongdoing and defended their methodology Friday, but at least two alderpeople want an investigation into the district’s COVID-19 dashboard following a data analysis from CPS parent and cloud engineer Jakob Ondrey.
The district tracks coronavirus cases and the number of people in isolation or quarantine by district and by school.
Ondrey has been closely tracking COVID-19 cases in Chicago public schools since February 2021 through his own portal, called Chicago Public Schools COVID-19 Case Tracker.
Until the beginning of this month, Ondrey said the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the district closely correlated with cases reported from individual schools. But those trends started diverging after students returned from winter break, Ondrey said.
Cases reported to the district were no longer showing up on school dashboards, Ondrey said. When he did a day-by-day analysis, Ondrey said he found dozens, or sometimes hundreds, or cases reported to the district that weren’t attributed to specific schools.
That lined up with what some CPS parents said they’ve experienced in recent weeks: They’re getting emails about COVID-19 cases in their kids’ schools — but those cases aren’t showing up on the district’s dashboard.
That, Ondrey said, made it seem like there were far fewer confirmed cases at schools while Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Department of Public Health battled with the Chicago Teachers Union over school safety during the city’s worst-ever COVID-19 surge, leading to several days of canceled classes.
In a statement Friday afternoon, CPS spokeswoman Mary Ann Fergus said the discrepancy is easily explained and will be cleared up.
Fergus said the district uses two primary sources of data to fill its COVID-19 dashboard. The data includes open cases — those that still need to be confirmed — and closed cases — ones that have been verified by contact tracers.
CPS was only reporting open cases at the school level until winter break, Fergus said. But on Dec. 20, the district switched to publishing only closed cases to “provide a more accurate number of closed positive and confirmed cases and to protect the privacy of our students and staff, especially in some of our school settings where the case count was very low and there was subsequent speculation about the health status of specific individuals,” she said.
But now, “in light of the Omicron surge and in the interest of broader transparency,” district officials are exploring reporting both open and closed cases at the school level, Fergus said.
The district is also offering “paid opportunities” to CPS staffers to help with contact tracing, with the goal of closing cases more quickly and helping parents make safe and informed choices, Fergus said.
In response, Ondrey questioned why the district didn’t publicize that it was reporting the numbers differently for several weeks.
Earlier Friday, Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) tweeted the allegations are “serious enough to warrant an official reply from Chicago Public Schools.” Ald. Maria Hadden (49th) also tweeted she wanted an explanation from the district.
Reached by phone, Hopkins said he submitted an inquiry to district officials Friday morning.
“If we can’t trust the data that’s being provided under the guise of objectivity, then people can’t make decisions based on anything. That puts the onus on the parents to make the call to send their children back to school, it puts them in an untenable position,” Hopkins said.
Hopkins said providing reliable and objective data is critical — not only when it comes to schools, but in many other facets of daily life as the pandemic rages on.
“When we have in-person meetings, when it’s safe to go to a Bulls game, be in a large crowd … analysis of hospitalization — all of these things are data points that come from hundreds of different directions and people don’t have the time to sort through it all,” he said.
“We, in government, are obligated to come up with reporting that we can agree on that works so people can make decisions at their personal comfort level.”
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