In an effort to reduce the number of students forced to quarantine due to COVID-19, Chicago Public Schools this week will begin a new pilot program that will allow unvaccinated kids to stay in school following coronavirus exposure under a strict testing regimen.
CPS CEO Pedro Martinez on Tuesday said the district will begin a test-to-stay program at just one school this week, allowing students there to avoid a mandatory quarantine following a close contact if they agree to multiple COVID-19 tests.
“We’re starting with (an) elementary (school) because that’s where we’re seeing the biggest ratio of quarantine,” he said, while not naming the specific school. “So that’s gonna start this week and then we’re just gonna continue to ramp up and learn, and for me the long game is we’re just gonna keep doing it.”
Under the pilot, an unvaccinated student who is exposed to COVID-19 would be allowed to stay in school if they and their parents agree to let the student be tested on the first, third, fifth and seventh day after their exposure.
CPS had more than 5,000 individuals in quarantine as of Monday, according to district data. Of those, 4,877 are students and 185 are adults. That total was at more than 7,600 as of last Wednesday when students went on their Thanksgiving break.
Other schools have expressed an interest in joining the test-to-stay pilot, Martinez said, but the district first wants to make sure families are comfortable implementing such a program before expanding it further.
“We know there is interest and appetite that we want our kids in schools,” said Alexandra Sontag, the family nurse practitioner for CPS. “We’re going to take our lessons learned (at the first school) and then continue to really build on that, really looking for the long term here.”
Martinez had said earlier this month that CPS was working to implement a test-to-stay option for students. He also said CPS is working on contingency plans in the event the district has to close any or all schools in the event of a coronavirus outbreak.
CPS has also expanded its testing capacity, Martinez said, as the district is now able to conduct more than 40,000 COVID-19 tests per week.
The citywide test positivity is at 3.5%, according to data from the Chicago Department of Public Health, up from 3% a week ago. The overall number of new COVID-19 cases per day has actually fallen from 599 last week to 493 on Tuesday, but CDPH Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said that’s likely due in part to fewer people getting tested and diagnosed over the holiday weekend.
Beyond test-to-stay, Arwady said an even more effective strategy is vaccinate-to-stay, again stressing the urgency to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
But concerns have been raised about the newly discovered omicron variant of COVID-19. While it has not yet made it to the U.S., Arwady said she expected that variant would be found in this country “very shortly.”
Still, she urged caution as testing on the omicron variant to determine if it’s more transmissible or makes people sicker remains ongoing. It is also not yet clear whether vaccines and other treatments will be effective against the omicron variant of COVID-19, Arwady said.
But with vaccines and testing widely available, she’s “really confident” CPS will be able to keep its schools open “by and large.” Unless, she added, there’s a “major national change.”
Heather Cherone contributed to this report.