With COVID-19 numbers on the rise and winter months on the way, the head of Chicago Public Schools says he’s looking at “contingency plans” in the event the district has to close any or all schools in the event of a coronavirus outbreak.
CPS CEO Pedro Martinez on Wednesday said his team is beginning to set up contingency plans and solidify a specific health metric that can be used to decide when to shut down in-person learning within a school or across the district itself.
“I am going to partner with (Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner) Dr. (Allison) Arwady and health professionals to start looking at making sure we have good criteria on when we look at situations where it could get risky for our schools,” Martinez said during the monthly Board of Education meeting. “My commitment is that we’re gonna make sure we do everything we can to keep our children safe.”
Per CDPH data, Chicago is averaging 465 new COVID-19 cases per day, an 11% increase from a week ago. The city’s positivity rate has also risen to 2.6%, up from 2.1% a week ago.
Among 15- to 17-year-olds in Chicago, COVID-19 infection rates are seven times higher among the unvaccinated compared to those who are vaccinated, CPS officials said Wednesday. For 12- to 14-year-olds, that rate is 10 times higher among those who are unvaccinated.
CPS schools were previously closed to in-person learning for more than a year during the height of the pandemic when a COVID-19 vaccine was not yet widely available. The district began resuming some in-person classes early in 2021 and started the current school year with buildings fully reopened.
The Chicago Teachers Union has continuously pushed for a districtwide COVID-19 safety metric as well as a school-based vaccination program, but has said the district has “adamantly reject(ed) any support” for those measures.
“We sincerely hope that we continue to keep our schools open,” union president Jesse Sharkey said during Wednesday’s board meeting. “It’s been, you know, by and large a difficult but positive experience. Kids need to be in school but … we would like to publicly hear the recognition that if conditions worsen, we’re going to respond in a way that gives us reassurance about how we’re going to keep the schools and the district safe.”
CPS has been ramping up its vaccination efforts now that the COVID-19 vaccine has been approved for 5- to 11-year olds. That included canceling classes last Friday to give kids a chance to go get vaccinated during a “vaccine awareness day.”
According to CPS, 6,687 total vaccine doses were administered to district students that day. Of those, 5,849 were given to 5- to 11-year-olds. Between Thursday and Saturday, nearly 13,000 doses were administered to CPS students. Data from Sunday was not yet available.
The school district was also asking teachers to speak with students and families about getting vaccinated during report card pickup Wednesday.
But Martinez was also questioned by board members about why CPS isn’t providing vaccines at more of its schools.
“How do we understand the space between what is information and what really is accessibility?” board member Elizabeth Todd Breland asked. “Because I think, to (board president Miguel) del Valle’s point, giving someone a list of where you can go (to get vaccinated) this weekend is a different proposition than (saying) there will be someone at our school this day.”
Martinez replied that the role of CPS is to be a connector, and that simply having the vaccine available at schools hasn’t necessarily worked to increase vaccination rates in other major cities.
“It has to be, we leverage our resources … we have the existing sites, we leverage our providers in the different neighborhoods and then we become the connector,” he said. “So we just have to keep layering it on and ... we just have to be aggressive.”