Chicago Public Schools Mom Dies After Her Child Is Exposed To COVID-19 At School

The woman’s family say they suspect she got COVID-19 from her child, who got sick after being exposed at a West Side public school.

WBEZ
A Chicago mother died whose children attend a CPS school where 60% of the students were identified as close contacts of someone with COVID-19. Bill Healy / WBEZ
WBEZ
A Chicago mother died whose children attend a CPS school where 60% of the students were identified as close contacts of someone with COVID-19. Bill Healy / WBEZ

Chicago Public Schools Mom Dies After Her Child Is Exposed To COVID-19 At School

The woman’s family say they suspect she got COVID-19 from her child, who got sick after being exposed at a West Side public school.

A mother with children at a West Side elementary school died after one of her children was exposed to COVID-19 at school and was told to quarantine.

The girl contracted COVID-19, as did her two siblings and her mother, Shenitha “Angel” Curry, said Curry’s sister, Jasyma Johnson. Johnson said she believes her sister contracted the virus from her children. Curry, 47, died Thursday.

But Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Alison Arwady said the department hasn’t been made aware of positive COVID-19 cases related to Curry. She also cautioned that the medical examiner has not ruled that Curry’s death was due to COVID.

However, she did not discount the possibility that Curry had COVID and that it could have contributed to her death. Arwady emphasized that getting vaccinated is the best way to protect yourself. Johnson said Curry was not vaccinated. She did not say why, but noted she wanted to keep her children home from school to protect herself.

The Chicago Department of Public Health has found no evidence of in-school transmission at the school, Jensen Elementary, based on the information available, according to a statement released by Chicago Public Schools. The health department continues to investigate.

The school district said it planned to start providing on-site voluntary COVID-19 testing at Jensen and all schools that have had five or more cases. Lurie Children’s Hospital planned to be at the school on Tuesday. The school district also is providing crisis counseling at Jensen.

But Johnson said the school district should be doing more to make schools safe and should allow students to learn at home if their parents want it. Currently, CPS is only allowing remote learning for medically fragile students.

Johnson said her sister had some medical conditions that made her terrified of getting COVID-19 and she rarely went outside the house. Her fears hit home when the school informed Curry that one of her children was the close contact of a confirmed case.

Jensen had eight confirmed cases of COVID-19 from Sept. 12-25 and 205 students and staff were identified as close contacts. Jensen, a small school of only 300 students, has had more cases and close contacts per student than any other school in the district.

Despite that, Arwady on Tuesday said there’s no evidence of a major or large scale outbreak at Jensen. She reiterated that there is no evidence that there was any in-school transmission and that schools were safe.

Johnson said Curry and her three children all tested positive for COVID, though she doesn’t think any of them are counted in the school’s cases. Johnson said the family has not heard from contact tracers.

Before dying, Curry criticized the school district because no contact tracers had reached out after quarantining her daughter. But Arwady said tracers are not asked to reach out to people who are quarantining. Instead, it was incumbent on Curry and her children to be tested and to let the school know they were positive for COVID-19, she said.

Johnson said the children had mild cases and recovered. But her sister got progressively sicker. It was her worst nightmare.

“She would tell [her kids], ‘I don’t want you to go to school because I’m probably going to be the one that ends up getting sick,’ ” Johnson said. She added that Curry wanted her children to learn from home, but was worried about getting in trouble.

In the ZIP code where Jensen School is located, less than half of children 12 and over are fully vaccinated and only 56% have gotten at least one shot. The Chicago Department of Public Health rates the area as “medium vulnerability.”

In a letter sent to Jensen parents late Sunday evening, school district officials said they are “saddened by the devastating impacts of COVID-19 on our community and understand the fear and anxiety you must be feeling from this tragedy.” The school did not mention Curry’s death specifically.

Yet the school district officials said they still believe they can make in-person learning safe “by wrapping ourselves in many layers of protection.”

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the school district have faced criticism for delays in notifying parents of confirmed positive cases and for the lack of regular COVID-19 testing. Though Lightfoot controls Chicago Public Schools, she said she was disappointed with the school district’s rollout of testing and contact tracing. CPS had planned to offer testing at all schools by the first day but that’s now delayed until at least the end of September. Contact tracing has also been criticized as extremely slow and now CPS say it’s tripling the number of contact tracers.

Just last week, the Chicago Teachers Union held a press conference at Jensen to call attention to the high numbers of cases and students in quarantine there. The teachers union wants the school district to agree to increased COVID-19 safety measures

CTU Officer Christel Williams warned that family members could be exposed if there’s not more testing, better contact tracing and more of a push to get adults and eligible children vaccinated.

“You have to understand that there are grandparents that are raising children in this community and could be contracting this virus,” she said. “Nobody is taking this serious. We need the mayor to pay attention.”

Johnson said she also believes Chicago Public Schools should be doing more. She has a son that attends a school in Naperville and she said it has regular testing, smaller class sizes and more attention to social distancing.

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