Chicago Public Schools failed to notify families about a significant change in its COVID-19 reporting

Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez
Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez at a news conference on January 4, 2022. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez
Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez at a news conference on January 4, 2022. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Chicago Public Schools failed to notify families about a significant change in its COVID-19 reporting

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Chicago Public Schools changed the way it reports COVID-19 cases at individual schools, but did not disclose it, resulting in parents getting an undercount of positive cases in the school their child attends.

The change during winter break was implemented at the time the omicron surge was taking hold, and Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the school district were trying to convince parents it was safe to send their children back to school. CPS insists the change was not meant to mislead.

On its COVID tracker web page, CPS was reporting data on cases district-wide and school-by-school that, according to the district, still needed to be confirmed. But on Dec. 20, in the winter break, CPS began reporting only closed cases – those that have been verified by a contact tracing team – at the school level.

Though CPS continued to include the larger number of open and closed cases in the district total, parents no longer were seeing the additional open cases at their individual school. This painted an imprecise picture for families.

After CPS made the change, a parent of a student at Clinton Elementary in West Ridge, for example, could go to the CPS tracker and see that during the week of Jan. 9 through 15, there were two cases at the school. However, during the same time period, records show the school district knew of 18 reported cases there.

Other examples from Jan. 9 to 15: Lane Tech College Prep’s page shows five cases, yet CPS knew of 37. McAuliffe School in Hermosa shows one case, but CPS knew of 13.

“The most flattering thing that you can say is that they [CPS] are bad at this. They are bad at communicating one of the most important things to parents, and that is the health and safety of their children,” said Jakob Ondrey, a parent and software engineer who has been running an independent CPS COVID-19 dashboard since September.

Ondrey uncovered CPS’s switch to closed cases-only data at the school level, which the district is now admitting to.

To create his dashboard, Ondrey pulls from two sets of public databases, and earlier this month he was shocked when they started to diverge from each other. The database that feeds into the school web pages showed way fewer cases than the one that feeds into the district total.

Ondrey described the discrepancy in a Twitter post that attracted a lot of attention, including from two alderpeople who called for an explanation from CPS. In a statement released Friday, the district said it has “an abiding interest in accurate COVID-19 data to inform our decisions and be transparent with the public.”

The statement added that “in light of the omicron surge and in the interest of broader transparency, we are re-evaluating our data reporting, and exploring reporting all open reported cases as well as closed cases at the school level.”

Ondrey noted that CPS did not divulge that it was making the change in its school-level data reporting. Only this Saturday, more than a month later and under public pressure, did the CPS school-level web pages state they were displaying only closed cases.

The city, the state and other big city school districts post cases and do not make the distinction between known and closed cases.

Dr. Allison Arwady, head of the Chicago Department of Public Health, has said if someone tests positive on any type of COVID-19 test they should assume they have the virus and stay home. It is unclear why CPS would only count verified cases, when the city counts all positive cases.

Also, for CPS, verifying cases has been problematic because it has struggled to create an effective contact tracing program. District CEO Pedro Martinez has expressed frustration at how long it takes for families to be informed about exposures, though he says the situation has gotten better over time.

Problems with contact tracing led the Chicago Teachers Union to suggest that some of the tasks be handed over to teachers and other staff at the school level. That is part of the new safety agreement just ratified by the union. In a statement, CPS said it thinks having school staff involved in contact tracing will lead to more cases being closed.

Ondrey said he is especially frustrated by CPS officials indicating they made the change in school-level reporting out of concerns for student privacy. According to their statement, “in all matters, we take student and staff privacy seriously.”

But Ondrey said no name or identifying information is attached to known or closed cases. He said privacy concerns usually come up when providing information on smaller groups, not larger ones.

The timing of the change in reporting school-level cases also raises questions.

The difference in the data showed up on Jan. 4, the day teachers union members voted to refuse to work in person. The school district said the cancellation of classes that resulted from the union’s vote is one reason why so few cases were closed in the first week of January.

However, whether a case is verified or not, known cases can trigger quarantines. That might be the most confusing factor for parents because their children’s school may show few cases, and yet hundreds of students are quarantined.

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