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Photo of protest over CPS closure in Chicago

Students and parents protest the CPS school closure on Monday, Jan. 10, at Philip Rogers Fine Arts, an elementary school at 7345 N. Washtenaw in Chicago.

Manuel Martinez

A fight over COVID-19 testing is a barrier to a deal needed to restart Chicago Public Schools

As the shutdown of Chicago Public Schools stretches into a fourth day on Monday, a major disagreement about who should be tested for COVID-19 is one major barrier preventing the Chicago Teachers Union and the school district from reopening schools.

Unlike other school districts with robust COVID-19 testing programs in schools, testing in Chicago Public Schools has become both a contentious logistical as well as ideological issue.

The teachers union unveiled a new proposal for a school safety agreement on Saturday but it included key elements the mayor and schools CEO had already rejected. Those measures were again swiftly rejected. Negotiations continued into Sunday evening, but no deal has been reached.

The measures CPS has rejected include a trigger to revert all schools to remote learning during a COVID-19 surge, as well as several provisions related to CPS’ testing program, which the union and many parents argue isn’t up to the task of keeping COVID-19 at bay. The school district agrees the program got off to a slow start and lacks enough tests.

The governor’s office Saturday night said Abbott and the University of Illinois SHIELD Illinois program would provide 350,000 rapid antigen tests to the school district. CPS said it would be finalizing arrangements for the sale to the district as soon as possible.

The union is demanding that students be enrolled by default in CPS’ COVID-19 testing program rather than the current program where they have to opt in with parental consent. The current opt-in program has dampened enrollment and has raised questions about whether it’s catching enough cases.

The union wants to test 10% of randomly selected students each week, rather than just students who sign up, in order to get a more accurate sampling of COVID-19 in a school building. This would require the school district to ramp up its testing capacity.

The school district is holding firm that students should opt-in. It also emphasizes that testing is just one mitigation strategy and that data shows that in-school transmission has been low. Mayor Lori Lightfoot is adamantly opposed to requiring all students to participate, calling it morally wrong to perform a “quasi-medical procedure” without a parent’s affirmative knowledge or consent.

“As a parent of a child, I would be outraged if a school system was doing anything with my child that I didn’t know about, and I didn’t affirmatively authorize,” she said Thursday. “Why would we take that option away from parents? We’re not going to do that. Come up with a different plan.”

Despite that, other Illinois school districts are using an opt-out policy, including in Evanston, Naperville, Joliet and a few charter schools in Chicago. They are all using CovidSHIELD, the saliva-based test developed by the University of Illinois and being used by more than 1,700 school districts and universities in Illinois. SHIELD Illinois said said about 70% of schools using the covidSHIELD test are choosing opt-in consent and the other 30 percent are doing opt-out parental consent.

CPS uses a swap-based COVID-19 test, but in a statement, a CPS spokesperson said the objection to an opt-in model isn’t based on the type of test. “CPS does not support an opt-out program because we believe it is vital to get explicit parental consent for any medical test,” the statement said.

Chicago Public Schools acknowledges it was slow to stand up its testing program and struggled at first to enroll families, who complained of a complicated process. The week before winter break CPS was testing a high of about 30,000 students and staff a week but had promised 40,000 tests a week. CPS said as of Jan. 6 nearly 54,000 students had signed up for the testing program.

CPS said it wants to make it easier for families to consent to testing, and to make more testing available through its testing vendor and by deploying additional nursing and staff. In addition, it also said it would make tests available to staff over the next week, to students at schools where there are outbreaks, and to children in care rooms at schools where sick students go.

CPS wants to continue its testing program as is, but it’s not clear it has the capacity to test more students, and to meet the demands of the teachers union for an opt-out program. That could be as many as 60,000 students every week.

The school district now has the offer from the governor to buy 350,000 antigen tests. But CPS for weeks says it’s been dealing with a national shortage of tests. However, SHIELD Illinois clearly had capacity. The organization told WBEZ before the governor’s offer that it has extra lab and testing capacity and “would do all it possibly could to partner with CPS on a successful testing operation if the district needs help.”

“We received informal outreach from [Chicago] political leaders about our testing capacity and have assured them that SHIELD Illinois can handle additional school partners,” SHIELD Illinois said in an email. The organization said it couldn’t say how long it might take to launch its program in CPS without knowing more details.

SHIELD Illinois submitted a bid this summer to administer CPS’ COVID-19 testing program but was not selected. Instead, CPS chose Thermo Fisher Scientific. CovidSHIELD is free for all districts except Chicago Public Schools because CPS receives direct federal funding.

CPS said it considered a saliva test but opted against it because of logistical challenges. It said saliva tests could be more challenging for young students and those with developmental disabilities. Additionally, prior to a saliva test, students can’t eat or drink for one hour. CPS said that was a constraint since many children eat breakfast at school.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter

Susie An covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @soosieon.

This story was updated with new information from SHIELD Illinois on the percentage of school districts that adopted opt-out parental consent for COVID-19 testing of students.

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