It is time for more (COVID) testing in CPS

I am sitting in my bedroom, isolated from my family as I write this. I just this morning tested positive for COVID-19. I have been vaccinated and boosted, and thankfully, my children are fully vaccinated as well. Thus far, neither of my children has tested positive, and we’re hoping to keep it that way. We are certainly hoping they will remain healthy and return to school on January 3. 

Notably, both children are eager to get back to school – especially our 6th grader, who spent the last week of school before winter break in close-contact quarantine. She is anxious to be back with her friends and teachers and away from online learning.

The truth is that Chicago Public Schools continues to adopt COVID mitigations that feel more like a messy basket of suggestions rather than a comprehensive strategy for living and schooling through a pandemic. Where other cities have used schools as a central hub for vaccinations and testing, Chicago has chosen essentially to leave families to their own devices.

CPS needs to make investments in mitigation infrastructure and not just kick the can back to families with a list of testing sites with mile-long waitlists.

Asking parents to get their children tested is not enough

With Omicron exploding through Chicago, CPS needs a much more proactive strategy, and immediately. Classes are scheduled to restart on January 3, and apart from an email/text/robocall from CPS suggesting that parents get their children tested for COVID-19 before returning to school, CPS has offered no additional support or strategy for a safe return.

During the last week of school, CPS sent home 150,000 home test kits for students and families so that families can test prior to their return to school on January 3. But those 150,0000 tests reach fewer than half of CPS students. None of the schools in my neighborhood, including my children’s school, got tests.

Access to free and/or affordable testing is not equitable throughout the city. Some people might have no trouble getting tests or can pay $25 for a set of two at-home rapid tests. Most testing sites in my neighborhood are by appointment only, and many of those appointments are already full through next week. Further, result times are far from guaranteed, with some testing sites providing results in 3-4 days (or longer.) 

Opt-in testing in schools is not enough

CPS CEO Pedro Martinez has repeatedly stated that his priority is to minimize disruptions and mass quarantines in CPS classrooms. In late November, he piloted a test-to-stay program, allowing students who were potential exposures to remain in school but to test on days 1, 3, and 5. 

In order to make that work district-wide, however, CPS needs to ramp up its testing capacity quite dramatically. Currently, CPS is able to test about 40,000 students – around 12% of the total student population. 

Part of this is because CPS has implemented an “opt-in” testing program, meaning that only students who have signed up for testing are getting tested weekly. An opt-out program would automatically enroll all students in testing, giving parents and students the option to opt-out if they have particular objections. 

Further, given the extreme transmissibility of Omicron, testing should not be limited to unvaccinated students. After all, I am fully vaccinated and boosted, and I still got infected.

Testing on its own is not enough

Public health experts across the country and the world have been saying from the beginning of the pandemic that no single mitigation is enough on its own. The United States, broadly speaking, has routinely dropped the ball in fully embracing the multi-layered (Swiss Cheese) approach to the pandemic. But CPS has the opportunity to approach this differently, starting now.

Suppose CPS truly wants to limit COVID-related interruptions to the classroom (which I certainly believe we should). In that case, CPS and the City of Chicago should consider every school a pathway into every community in the city. Every school should be a vaccination site and a testing site. (It’s not sufficient to have a single “Vaccination Awareness Day.”) High-quality N95 masks should be available for free for teachers and students. And outdoor lunchtimes should be the norm as much as is possible. 

These mitigations and more are truly necessary if students are to start back to school safely on January 3 and continue without significant disruption through the winter. Suppose CPS is serious about resuming something closer to normal in schools. In that case, CPS needs to make investments in mitigation infrastructure and not just kick the can back to families with a list of testing sites with mile-long waitlists.

Further, these mitigations are necessary to support already overwhelmed faculty and staff at schools. Any time a staff member is infected, they must isolate for ten days, and CPS does not have the capacity to accommodate the highly infectious Omicron ripping through schools. Without serious mitigations in place, the staffing crisis in CPS schools will rapidly rise to untenable levels.

CPS has the opportunity to lead at this moment by making schools safe and equitable community centers for learning. So far, though, the opportunity has repeatedly been passed over in favor of an every-family-for-themselves approach. But individuals on their own cannot create an infrastructure for safety and stability. And so long as CPS and the City of Chicago choose to ignore that infrastructure in favor of the Hunger Games, we will not have the stability and safety our children need in schools.

Photo by Guido Hofmann on Unsplash

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Kira Dault

Kira Dault is a writer and editor who lives in Chicago with her family. She can be found on Twitter @kiradault.