Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez says he’s concerned by lagging student vaccination rates as the district sees infections and quarantines beginning to rise heading into the holiday season, and as a new COVID-19 variant causes worries.
Just less than half of CPS students aged 12 and up have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 despite becoming eligible last spring, officials said Tuesday. And only 12.6% of younger students in the 5-11 age group approved for shots this month have received at least one jab, meaning far fewer are fully vaccinated. More than 90% of staff have completed their vaccine series.
“I’m still very concerned on the percentages of our students,” Martinez told reporters at a City Hall news conference with Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady. “In terms of fully being vaccinated, we want to get well above 50%.”
The district saw an uptick in reported cases and children quarantined leading up to Thanksgiving, making vaccines as important as ever. There were 71 student infections reported Nov. 15, matching a single-day high since the start of the school year. In all, the week before Thanksgiving saw 367 students and 98 adults test positive. Those figures remain an extremely low fraction of the 330,000-student district.
Martinez and Arwady had worried about a rise in infections as families gathered for the holidays, but it’s too early to tell Thanksgiving’s effect on case rates, they said Tuesday. That’ll be monitored over the next week or two along with the emergence of the omicron variant that is still being researched but could have major implications in the coming weeks and months.
CPS is still working on scaling up its voluntary testing program, Martinez said, but has now hit a capacity of 40,000 weekly tests. Those are for asymptomatic students and staff as a way of monitoring the virus’ undetected spread in schools.
The testing program is still a far cry from the district’s August promise of having the ability to test every student and staff member weekly, and many schools are seeing low opt-in rates.
Martinez said he’d like at least 10% of the students at every school to be signed up for weekly testing. Many schools are at less than half that rate, Chalkbeat Chicago reported. The program has faced several delays and hurdles this school year, and Martinez said he was disappointed CPS hadn’t been better prepared when he took over as CEO in late September.
Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey called the district’s testing plan “irresponsible” Tuesday and urged universal testing and more vaccination events to keep schools safe.
As far as quarantines go, the district also reached all-time high numbers this month of students sent home because of potential in-school COVID-19 exposure. The two weeks before Thanksgiving saw an average hovering around 6,000 students and staff in quarantine.
That’s despite CPS reducing the isolation window from 14 days to 10 in hopes of bringing those numbers down. As of Monday, there were nearly 4,877 students and 185 adults quarantined, CPS records show.
In an attempt to further minimize the need for quarantining, Martinez said CPS is starting a pilot for a test-to-stay program that has been used in districts around the state and is approved by Illinois health officials.
Under those rules, a student who is vaccinated and deemed a close contact to a confirmed COVID-19 case would be allowed to stay at school rather than quarantine as long as they get tested for the virus on their first, third, fifth and seventh days after exposure.
For now, CPS is piloting that program at one elementary school — officials didn’t say which one — where a principal was one of a few who volunteered to give it a try. CPS will wait for a case to be detected in that school, then offer that student’s parents the option of testing to stay at school.
Dr. Allie Sontag, a CPS nurse practitioner who helps manage the district’s pandemic response, acknowledged some parents may be hearing mixed messaging with this plan and said communication is key so families understand the potential changes down the line.
“It is a little odd, right, we’ve told you to stay home, and now we’re telling you to come,” she said. “We want to make sure that we’re communicating clearly to our families whose students would have been asked to quarantine.”