The CEO of Chicago Public Schools on Tuesday revealed the district’s COVID-19 protocols for the fall, including “strongly recommending” masks; restarting the in-school, free, weekly testing program; and continuing to exclude students who test positive for COVID-19 and their unvaccinated close contacts — unless those classmates participate in a newly expanded test-to-stay program.
“I am very confident as we move into the new school year. I think we’re in a better place today than ever,” CEO Pedro Martinez said in an online discussion with Chicago’s public health commissioner, Dr. Allison Arwady.
Martinez said CPS, the nation’s third-largest school district, applied lessons from last year to the guidelines for the new school year, which begins Aug. 22. Much of the strategy is unchanged from the spring, which is when CPS dropped its mask requirement. What’s new for the fall is more access to the test-to-stay program.
Students and staff members who test positive for COVID-19 continue to be required to stay home for five days, no matter their vaccination status. If they don’t have symptoms at the end of that isolation period, they can return to school as long as they mask for days six through 10.
Vaccinated students deemed close contacts of an infected person can stay in school. Unvaccinated close contacts have three options — submit proof of vaccination; learn from home for five days and mask in school for days six through 10; or participate in the test-to-stay program.
The program was piloted in the winter and over the summer. To participate, students must obtain two rapid tests, which are said to be available in schools. They have to test negative on the Monday and Thursday after exposure and submit results on CPS’ website. These students must be asymptomatic, wear a mask and refrain from participating in sports and extracurricular activities until 10 days after exposure.
The test-to-stay program “started with one school. We expanded it to over 40 schools by the end of the school year, and we continued that into our summer programs. What was a great lesson, Dr. Arwady, was less than 2% — about 1.5% of our students (who were) close contacts — actually contracted COVID,” Martinez said.
“So in other words, 98.5% of our students, (who) stayed in the classrooms, even after we had cases in the classrooms, were consistently negative during that period. So, for us, it just really tells us that it is very possible, families, to have our (kids) safely in school still learning even as we’re having cases in our community, and of course, when they come into our schools.”
High school students will be informed individually by CPS if they are a close contact, Martinez said, while notifications of a positive elementary school case will be sent to the infected student’s entire classroom.
Martinez said each student and staff member will receive a take-home rapid COVID-19 test the first week of school. The optional in-school testing program is set to resume the week of Aug. 29. At its peak, in the spring, about 65,000 tests were conducted each week. Students and staff members who were enrolled in the program for the last school year have to complete a new consent form. CPS students can enroll in the testing program here.
CPS said it will continue to offer vaccinations in schools. Arwady expressed concern Tuesday that only 9.1% of Chicago kids under 5 — some 14,900 children — have received their first dose of the vaccine. The vaccine became available for this age group in June.
CPS finished the school year in June with roughly 22,500 student COVID-19 cases and 9,500 adult cases. The data covers about 270,000 students enrolled in district-run schools. It was a rocky return to full-time, in-person learning as the delta and omicron variants disrupted classrooms. Teachers voted in January to refuse in-person work amid a rise in cases, and classes were canceled for five days.
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CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union forged a safety agreement in January that expires this month. The indoor mask requirement was a provision of the deal. The district made masks optional in March, a decision the union said was made unfairly and unilaterally.
Martinez and Arwady on Tuesday outlined scenarios that would bring the mask mandate back. An entire class would be asked to mask, regardless of vaccination status, if three or more cases were detected in the classroom at one time.
Arwady said masks could return in CPS if they are mandated citywide; if COVID-19 is “significantly threatening” the city’s health care system; and if a new variant of high concern emerges that is resistant to vaccines.
“I hope we don’t need to make masks mandatory for everybody across the city again, but we would do it,” she said.
As part of Tuesday’s discussion, Arwady also stressed that she is not concerned about Chicago kids contracting the monkeypox virus. The city has recorded about 550 cases so far, mostly in adult males.
“We are not concerned at any significant level about MPV in schools because we do not have sexual or intimate contact in schools. We don’t have this sort of direct contact if there were to be people with infections,” Arwady said.