With classes for Chicago public schools starting Monday, there are rising concerns that the school district does not have an adequate program in place for screening for COVID-19, potentially placing children at greater risk.
The school district late Friday afternoon released some details to principals about its surveillance testing program for students, which is designed to catch cases early to limit their spread. But there are still a lot of unknowns, including how many students and staff the school district expects to test weekly. The school district is offering a nasal swab and is promising results within 72 hours, as opposed to a saliva test with immediate results.
A big concern being raised about CPS’ testing program is that it’s voluntary. Testing is not mandatory except for student athletes.
The mayor and school district officials insist that the testing program will be ready and sufficient. But they emphasize that other safety measures, such as masking and social distancing, will be in place to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Dr. Allison Bartlett, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Chicago, also said that masking and vaccinations are more essential than surveillance testing. If money is limited, she said it is better to spend it to make sure that symptomatic people get tested and that the results are communicated quickly and acted upon.
Yet, she noted any time an asymptomatic COVID case is identified it can limit the spread.
“Screening testing is definitely a nice thing to be able to do, and the more we do it, the potentially better that piece of protection happens,” she said.
Some parents say they want all students and staff to be tested weekly. And they say that Chicago Public School promised that earlier this month. Jennifer Griffin points to a letter the school district sent on August 6 that said. “We are committed to testing 100%of CPS students and staff each week.”
“I am highly concerned that CPS is not either not holding up their word or not being transparent,” Griffin said.
School district officials clarified that they are committed to offering tests to all students and staff, though only unvaccinated athletes are required to be tested weekly.
Griffin and others worry about what will happen if few parents decide to get their children tested. At a press conference Friday, several said they are nervous about sending their children into schools without regular testing of all students and staff. Several have young children who have health conditions and are not yet eligible to be vaccinated.
“I am scared because my son has asthma, and as his mother, I worry about his health,” said Adriana Rios, whose son is nine. “We are not calling on CPS to shut down schools. We are calling on them to keep their word to test all students.”
In a Friday afternoon email to principals, CPS officials told them that, as school leaders, they will be responsible for “inviting” students to be tested, having them register and consent to testing, communicating about results and responding if there’s a positive test.” CPS says parents will have to register and consent once every six months.
Chicago Public Schools has insisted its safety protocols are in line with what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends. But the CDC does not make a firm recommendation on testing for purposes of screening.
The CDC suggests that school district’s may consider randomly testing 10% of the student body, which is what New York City schools is doing.
Dr. Sadiya Khan, an assistant professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University, said the problem is that there is not enough data to say that surveillance testing is necessary. In situations where community transmission is low and most adults and young adults are vaccinated, then it likely isn’t necessary. But it could be a strategy, if cases are headed in the “wrong direction,” she said.
Chicago Public Schools officials point out that the CDC emphasizes the need for parents to consent to testing and that is why they chose their program.
Los Angeles’ school district, though, is taking it a step further. They are making weekly testing mandatory and are not allowing students on campuses without a negative test. Also, some suburban school districts and private schools in the Chicagoland area are doing regular testing of all unvaccinated students.