As we approach the one-year anniversary of the first CPS Sick-Out, we are at a point that was unimaginable when we first started protesting for a “Safe Return or No Return” for Chicago Public Schools in January 2021.
The Omicron surge is hitting Chicago hard and fast, with the highest peak of positive COVID-19 cases in Chicago since the pandemic started. Yet at no time during this pandemic has the CPS central office operated the district as a proactive, community-centered, educational entity .
CPS Needs Stronger COVID Mitigation Measures
CPS continues to operate the third-largest school district in the country with the bald assertion that schools are the “best and safest place for our students to be!” That might be true if every school was perfectly implementing the COVID mitigation measures—vaccinations, high-quality masks, classroom ventilation, cleaning, distancing. But parents know that what CPS district officials say schools are doing and what schools are actually doing are not the same thing.
As of December 29, according to the city’s COVID dashboard, only 22 percent of Chicago children aged 5 to 11 and about 64 percent of children aged 12-17 were fully vaccinated. There also continue to be stark disparities along racial and economic lines. Yet CPS rejected the opportunity to transform all schools into vaccination hubs, despite pleas from parents and local organizations.
Further, CPS is not providing recommended, higher-quality KN95 masks to all students and staff. In the midst of highly contagious Omicron, this means the families who can afford to buy them will be better protected than those who cannot. On December 30, the Chicago Teachers Union submitted a proposal for increased mitigations before teachers and staff return to schools after the winter break. Without those mitigations, CTU calls for a two-week pause for in-person teaching while the district figures out how to implement these necessary safety measures.
Testing is Still A Mess
In November, Dr. Allison Arwady stated the goal to have 10% of students in each school signed up for the district’s school-based COVID testing. However, 60% of schools have still not met that threshold, and 48 schools have fewer than five students signed up.
With no requirements for how that 10% is distributed across grade levels or classrooms, it is difficult to argue how representative that sample would actually be in order to catch an outbreak that spreads as quickly as Omicron. All the while CPS contact tracing remains slow, with some parents still waiting up to 10 days to be notified of a school exposure.
On the last day before winter break, CPS gave 150k at-home test kits to some schools, but students already in quarantine weren’t there to pick them up. Families who did receive the kits were required to send the pre-paid packages back to the CPS vendor exclusively through FedEx, in locations that were not convenient in many West and Southside neighborhoods.
This predictably resulted in scenes of overstuffed drop-off boxes on December 28, with hundreds of tests piled up on the sidewalks. In response to this debacle, CPS extended the deadline to December 30th, but with no guarantee that results would be returned before January 3.
Sick Out 2 Save Lives
School districts like Detroit, Newark, Cleveland, Madison, Seattle, Atlanta, East St Louis, and Evanston are going remote or delaying their start dates. How long will CPS wait to make a similar decision?
With no districtwide remote plan in sight, CPS leaders continue to put the burden of individual risk assessment on parents’ shoulders. One parent said, “They expect us to send our children back into the fire, without an extinguisher. And there’s not even an alarm for us to pull.”
Community organizations, including CTU, keep trying to patch the giant holes in the infrastructure and provide resources to CPS families as best they can, but the dam is about to burst.
Chicago parents who choose to keep their children home on January 3, know that you are not alone. Whether you join the CPS Sick-Out protest or allow your child to take mental health days available to Illinois students, use your power as a parent to advocate for the health of your family and for your community.
This Monday, send a message to CPS district and school leaders that requiring in-person K-12 learning this week does not make sense. When there are 570 children testing positive per day in Chicago, with at least five children being hospitalized per day, schools are most definitely not the “safest places students can be during the pandemic.”