New CPS CEO Pledges to ‘Make This Better’ After Criticism of COVID-19 Safety Plans

Video: With a new leader at the helm, Chicago Public Schools says it has strengthened its efforts to respond to the coronavirus. (Produced by Amanda Vinicky)

Chicago Public Schools’ new CEO said Thursday the district will provide more COVID-19 testing and work harder to keep families in the loop on case information amid confusion and criticism through the first month of the school year.

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On his second day as CEO, Pedro Martinez and the school district announced CPS has hired an additional 30 contact tracers, revised its online COVID-19 information dashboard to show positive cases within 24 hours, and beginning Friday, will provide screening testing to students and staff in every CPS school.

This comes after public concerns over the district’s safety strategies, case data and contact tracing ability, the latter of which has been scrutinized after the death of Shenitha “Angel” Curry, a CPS mother whose child was exposed to COVID-19 at school, according to a family member.

Curry, 47, reportedly never heard from contact tracers tasked with stopping the spread of COVID-19. Earlier this month, Mayor Lori Lightfoot told WTTW News she was “disappointed” with the school district’s testing and tracing rollout.

“I know things have happened in the past,” Martinez said during a news conference with Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady. “I am here now, I own this now and we’re going to again make this better.”

The screening tests, which were initially expected to be available at all schools weeks ago, are voluntary for students and staff, and allow CDPH to track potential spread among those who are showing no symptoms of COVID-19.

Per the updated dashboard, 14,761 screening tests have already been administered, 17 of which came back positive. Over the last month, there have been 1,101 confirmed cases among students and 342 among adults inside schools, or about 5 in every 1,000 people, according to Arwady.

“That is not an unexpected number,” Arwady said. “It is well in line with what we are seeing in other school districts and it is not significantly out of line with what we are seeing at the community rate, despite there being quite a bit more testing. So nothing that I am seeing in those numbers is concerning me.”

As of Thursday, 6,322 CPS students and 281 adults are currently in quarantine.

Chicago Teachers Union officials have repeatedly denounced the district’s existing mitigation plans as the two sides continue working toward a safety agreement. Those same officials said little progress has been made of late toward reaching that deal.

“It’s hurting our district, not just because the district’s plan has been in shambles, but the lack of clarity produces confusion and undermines confidence,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey told WTTW News on Wednesday.

Martinez plans to address some of those clarity and transparency concerns by joining Arwady for weekly press briefings to update the public on the status of COVID-19 within CPS schools.

During Thursday’s news conference, he said he’ll look into expanding remote learning options for students as the district works to strengthen its existing COVID-19 safety protocols after a month of in-person learning.

Martinez made no promises that CPS would actually begin offering a remote option to more students, but said he will investigate the district’s capacity to expand its existing program.

Currently, enrollment in the CPS virtual academy is limited to “medically fragile” students with documented health needs.

While he made clear his belief that in-person learning is the better educational option, Martinez said he wants to “reduce anxiety” for families who are concerned about sending their unvaccinated students into school buildings despite existing protocols.

“If we can accommodate our families, I would like to do that,” Martinez said. “Especially as we are all waiting for vaccines to come in for 5- to 11-year-olds.”

Contact Matt Masterson: @ByMattMasterson[email protected] | (773) 509-5431

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