Chicago public health officials told students from Vaughn Occupational High School that were showing coronavirus-like symptoms they could get tested in a tent outside the school, but a series of missteps left at least one student in limbo for several days.
All Vaughn students, staff and school visitors were asked to self-quarantine after a teacher’s aide at the school tested positive for COVID-19 on March 6. Vaughn is a school for 212 students with special needs.
The snafu raises questions about the the ability of public health officials and the school district to reach all students at other schools, especially ones larger than Vaughn, in the event someone in their building is diagnosed with COVID-19.
The first problem arose because the student was not on the list of Vaughn students. School district officials have admitted this was an error on their part.
That prevented the student’s mother, who asked not to be identified out of fear of being stigmatized, from being contacted by city officials for days. When she reached out on her own, she said she was not given clear information on where to be tested. Her daughter is 18 years old and has an intellectual disability. She began showing symptoms over the weekend.
It wasn’t until Wednesday that the mother got the message that she could take her daughter to Vaughn to get tested. When she got there Thursday, the onsite testing center was gone. The Chicago Department of Public Health halted its site testing at Vaughn sometime earlier this week.
“There is nothing here,” said the mother frantically. Her daughter and five-year-old son have had a fever and a cough off and on. They don’t know if it’s a cold or if they should be concerned. Her son also has an intellectual disability.
On Thursday afternoon, she said she was finally able to speak with a public health official who told her to go to a private testing site Friday afternoon.
The mother is still frustrated.
“I learned about the coronavirus case at Vaughn on the TV news,” said the mother in Spanish, adding that she also got a robocall from CPS on Friday about the Vaughn case that all district parents received.
Four days passed without a call from the school district or health officials. But after talking to others, she called the city health department on Tuesday.
She received conflicting information from the city. “I called the health department and I told them you haven’t given me clear information of steps to follow to prevent a possible spread of the virus. I am worried because my daughter went to that school and was possibly in contact with the teacher aide for days.” The mother says she was also at the school when the aide was there.
The mother said the city health worker told her repeatedly that her daughter wasn’t listed as a Vaughn student. She was also told to call her primary health care doctor. But her doctor told her not to show up at the office.
Meanwhile, the mother and other family members, including the five-year-old boy who has been sick, have been out of the house and the boy has gone to his Chicago public school.
CDPH did not respond to repeated requests for comment Thursday. On Wednesday, the department released a statement saying all students at Vaughn are being monitored and tested. “So far, no Vaughn students have tested positive for the virus and neither have any additional faculty and staff, beyond the original case,” said Andy Buchanan, director of public affairs with the Chicago Department of Public Health.
But additional information about where students developing symptoms should go to get tested is unclear.
Some health officials argue more could have been done to test Vaughn students showing symptoms, including testing them in their homes.
“Many don’t have cars, so do we have them take public transportation? Of course not,” said Elizabeth Lalasz, a nurse at Stroger Hospital. “Public health workers should come to their homes to test them, but without support we can’t reasonably expect them to isolate themselves,”
CDPH officials have said they don’t do that, but gave Vaughn parents a hotline number to call if they have problems.
Chicago Public Schools officials said the student was enrolled in Vaughn High School, according to the student information system. She transferred there in January. But instead of using that system to contact her, district officials used a school-created student contact list because it says those lists are often the most reliable. For some reason, the student in question was not on that list.
The school district acknowledges it made a mistake by not cross referencing the school’s contact list with the most up-to-date information.
"The district is grateful that the family alerted us of the omission and the CDPH has been in touch with the family,” CPS said in a statement. “This is an important lesson learned and as we move forward, we will take additional steps to cross reference lists of students.”
CPS officials is also a new call for parents to make sure their child’s school has updated emergency contact information.