Chicago Public Schools will start the school year on Monday with only about 54% of students in district-run schools fully vaccinated against COVID-19, after a summer in which relatively few children in the city got their first or second shot.
Vaccination rates still vary widely across the district, with some schools where nearly all students are vaccinated and others with less than 10% inoculated. This comes as more people are protected after having had COVID-19 but with the country facing the most highly transmissible version of the virus yet.
But like school districts across the country, Chicago Public Schools is peeling back some protocols to stop the spread of COVID-19. At the same time, leaders stress the school district is continuing free regular testing, which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said is no longer necessary.
CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said he’s hoping to avoid disruptions to learning as much as possible.
“We want our children to be in classrooms and to be learning safely,” Martinez said in an online Q&A with the Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady.
Chicago Teacher Union leaders also said they want students in person in class as much as possible.
“The pandemic has definitely taken a toll on students, families, teachers, communities,” said Zeidre Foster, head of the CTU’s grievance department. “I think folks are looking forward to a school year without so much disruption. I think that people want to see some normalcy.”
At the same time, she said teachers and staff want COVID safety measures. In negotiations with the school district this summer, the CTU wanted testing, the continuation of the district’s vaccination efforts and some level of masking.
The school district has agreed to these measures, and the CTU’s elected delegates will vote next week on the proposed safety plan for this year. If approved, members will then vote on it.
Most safety measures remain from last year, but the biggest difference this year is that close contacts of someone with COVID, even if they are unvaccinated, will no longer have to be quarantined. They will only have to mask for 10 days. And the school district will provide rapid at-home tests, which will be encouraged, but won’t be required. CPS made this decision this week after the CDC and state officials said they were no longer recommending that close contacts quarantine after exposure.
Martinez said masks will continue to be an important tool for fighting the spread. Students in classrooms with a positive case will have to mask for six to 10 days, as will the positive student once they return. Absent that, masks will be optional but strongly encouraged.
These altered protocols come as officials try to balance the need for students to remain in class and the need to curtail the spread of COVID. But students who test positive for COVID will have to stay home for at least five days, disrupting much needed learning.
Dr. Arwady said the city is averaging about 100 COVID cases a day among children under 17. And one or two children are hospitalized with COVID every day, she said.
Most severe cases are among unvaccinated children, she said.
“Even in kids, being unvaccinated is a significant risk factor for being hospitalized and for getting seriously ill,” she said. “That’s the top reason why we want to get children vaccinated.”
Yet getting Chicago Public Schools students vaccinated has been slow going.
Over the summer, the vaccination rate among 5- to 17-year olds, among both CPS and non-CPS students, in the city went from 59% to 59.7%, shows a WBEZ analysis of city data. At the time, rates lagged for the youngest age groups.
The school district has not yet released data showing updated vaccination rates as the summer draws to a close. The most recent information is from June 17, the last week of the 2021-22 school year.
At schools serving majority Black students on the West and Southwest sides only about a quarter of all students are fully vaccinated, compared to 86% of white students on the North Side.
There’s also about 20,000 students who had gotten one shot at the end of last school year, but did not get the follow-up dose during the summer, according to CPS. For example, in the community area of North Lawndale, 537 students had received only one shot. If they would have come back for a second shot, the vaccination rate would have risen 10 percentage points, from 25% to 35%.
Both CPS and city officials said they take steps to make sure that children don’t just get one, but both of their shots. “Our priority is ensuring that we have used all available resources and implemented programs to educate our families about the importance of being fully vaccinated and boosted and we will continue those efforts this school year,” said CPS officials in a statement.
When a student gets vaccinated at a school district event, a CPS representative and the vaccine provider reaches out and reminds them to get a second shot, according to CPS. And mobile clinics return to schools three weeks after the first one to ensure that children can complete the series.
Foster from the CTU said that school staff should know who needs the second shot so they can encourage parents to get it done. Under the district’s COVID safety proposal, there will be COVID captains at each school who will get stipends to sign students up for screening and vaccinations.
Pediatricians say one shot provides some protection from COVID-19, but children would be much better protected with two.
This school year, the CPS is not offering regular COVID-19 vaccination clinics on site. But it will continue to have four regional sites that will offer vaccinations and any school that wants to hold an event can work with the school district to organize it, Martinez said.
The school district also is hoping to prevent the spread of COVID through regular testing of students and staff, which most school districts across the country are opting not to do. Arwady said she expects cases to increase simply because more testing will reveal more cases.
“We know that we find cases but it’s one of the best ways to help stop the spread and keep schools safe,” she said.
By the end of last year, nearly 94,000 students had opted into testing after a lot of effort to get them signed up.
But teachers and staff are dismayed that parents will be required to fill out another consent form to re-enroll students in the program. CPS said the new consent will remain in place until the student leaves the district.
Josh Lerner, an English teacher at Peirce Elementary, said it was hard work getting students at his school signed up. Staff went door to door and manned phone banks. “It’s disappointing and kind of dispiriting and a bit of a blow to folks’ morale to know the hard work that we put in has to be done again,” he said.
The school district is not saying why these consent forms need to be redone.
“From where I stand, it just speaks to an ongoing trend throughout this pandemic of things that we want to collaborate on, and that we want to make easier in order to help keep our schools community safe and there being one roadblock after another,” he said.
Cortney Ritsema said she is also worried about what COVID safety will look like this year. Ritsema is part of Activate Chicago, a group of parents who came together to advocate for masking and other mitigation measures to be put in place.
She said her children are vaccinated and will be in school on Monday. So far they haven’t gotten COVID.
“It’s something that we still want to avoid our family getting if we can,” she said. “If precautions are taken, we’re seeing that we can avoid that. And so I guess, for us, COVID is not over. Life isn’t completely back to normal.”