Chicago Public Schools on Monday said it is not immediately backing away from a decision to only publicly share the number of COVID-19 cases at individual schools that were confirmed by contact tracers. This reporting change, made over winter break, is being sharply criticized for giving parents a less accurate and timely picture of what is happening in their children’s schools.
Until winter break, the district reported all cases on its COVID-19 web tracker, including students who tested positive in the district’s COVID surveillance program and those who self-reported. The school district on Monday said it was evaluating whether to go back to posting all reported cases and expects to have a timeline for making that decision soon.
The school district is being blasted for not disclosing this change. The issue was only brought to light by an intrepid software engineer and parent. Nothing on the website indicated that only cases confirmed by the district’s beleaguered contact tracing team were being posted.
The fact that his change took effect just as the omicron variant was surging and the school district was trying to convince parents schools were safe is raising questions. The school district insists the change was not meant to mislead. It said the decision was meant to provide a more accurate number of confirmed cases and to protect student and staff privacy.
CPS said on Monday that neither CPS CEO Pedro Martinez nor Dr. Allison Arwady, who runs the city’s public health department, were involved in making the call. The school district also never “formally” told the Chicago Department of Public Health it was making the change, though CPS’ chief health officer reports to CPDH as well as to CPS.
Instead, the decision was made solely by a CPS “cross functional team,” including people from Informational Technology and from the Office of Student Health and Wellness. When asked why city public health officials were not consulted, the school district said, “This was a decision about how we choose to share school-level data on the CPS website.”
Meanwhile, many parents are angry they are being told a COVID case count for their school that is lower than the school district is aware of.
Dr. Anna Volerman, a pediatrician at the University of Chicago, said that as both a mother of CPS students and a doctor, she thinks it is important for the district to share accurate data.
“In the middle of a pandemic, people need information, and they need information to make decisions for themselves and for their families,” she said.
A fully vaccinated family of healthy individuals might not be worried about reported cases in their school, she said, “But for other children, they may have chronic conditions, they may have family members who have chronic conditions, they have may have family members who are immunocompromised, and so knowing a quarter of the school is infected by COVID is an important piece for them.”
Volerman said her children’s principal is good at letting parents know when there are cases in the building or when children could have been exposed. But she suspects there is some variety among principals.
Parent Alexa Lee-Hassan said by sharing a low number of confirmed cases at the school level gives parents a false sense of security. Lee-Hassan has a son in preschool at a neighborhood elementary school. They don’t not want to identify the school to protect the privacy of the principal and other parents.
After winter break, when school was canceled during a standoff between the teachers union and school district over a COVID-19 safety agreement, some parents at the school were pushing to return in person. To make their case, they relied in part on the district’s COVID tracker, which showed few cases at the school. “It was very much set up that we should look at our school in a bubble,” they said. “Our school was safe.”
But when school resumed, students were quarantined. About 30 students are still in quarantine, even though the last confirmed case was 12 days ago. Students are quarantined based on reported cases. The contact tracing team then tries to verify, which often takes some time.
Lee-Hassan said they are now questioning if they’ll be told in a timely fashion if there is a positive case in their son’s class. Their son is vaccinated, but still they would want to know.
“All of this is a cost-benefit, risk analysis,” they said.
But Dr. Jihad Shoshara, the president of Pediatric Health Associates in Naperville, said he doesn’t think that parents should be as concerned about the number of cases in schools. He tells parents COVID is everywhere so they need to be cautious wherever they go.
“We know that the best defense against COVID is going to be the vaccines, as well as masking,” he said. “And if everyone is masking, and the children are masking and the staff are masking the way that they should be, we know it has proven to be preventative. That is going to mitigate the risk as much as possible.”