Chicago Public Schools students will head back to the classroom at the end of the month.
The return to in-person learning comes amid a rise in the number of COVID-19 cases, driven by the more transmissible delta variant, and as the city continues its vaccine outreach efforts.
On Friday, CPS announced that its teachers and staff will be required to get the COVID-19 vaccine, but the district isn’t yet ready to require eligible students to get vaccinated, said interim CPS CEO José Torres. Instead, CPS will defer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and epidemiologists for recommendations related to student vaccine requirements, he said.
“We’re not ready to go in that direction just yet,” Torres said.
However, Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey said the CPS vaccine mandate doesn’t go far enough.
“There’s a lot of other people in school buildings, students especially,” Sharkey said. “There’s a vaccine that’s available for students age 12 and over, and among Black students in Chicago, for example, only 12% are vaccinated.”
More than 70% of adults in Chicago have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and 50% of people ages 12 to 17 have received at least one dose, according to the health department. However, students under 12 aren’t yet eligible to get vaccinated.
The CTU and CPS remain in negotiations about the reopening.
Masks will also be required for students and staff, and the district will make weekly COVID-19 tests available to all students and staff. But CTU members say CPS has been unclear about details related to testing.
“We just recently made an announcement that we will be testing all students and all staff [once] a week,” Torres said. “This goes way beyond the CDC recommendation. This is part of our mitigation efforts. In addition to contact tracing and universal masking, we believe we will be ready to begin school on Monday, Aug. 30 for in-person instruction five days a week.”
Other mitigation efforts include screenings for COVID-19 symptoms, hand-washing and 3-foot social distancing where possible, Torres said.
“Our testing, COVID-19 testing, will be amply available to everyone to get tested and it has been proven already that in-person school is superior to anything else and we have had this model in other schools,” said Dr. Geraldine Luna, medical director at the Chicago Department of Public Health. “CPS is implementing what we completely, completely stand by and guarantee that it will be effective so we can safely send them back to in person school.”
CTU is also pushing for CPS to set COVID-19 metrics at which the district would move to virtual learning. Torres said the district will be working with the health department on that.
“The reality is we had some metrics in the spring that are no longer valid now that the vaccine is widely available and people are vaccinated,” Torres said. “The metrics will change a little bit. I don’t have them personally, but we will have guidelines. And the state has given us guidelines. It’s really at the discretion of the CEO when you quarantine a classroom, multiple classrooms, a school and obviously the district.”