While Chicago’s top doctor remains “confident” Chicago Public Schools won’t head back into remote learning at a district level due to COVID-19 amid growing concerns about the omicron variant, it's possible some individual schools may be forced to halt in-person classes temporarily.
Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady on Thursday said that even if COVID-19 cases in schools continue to grow, she does not expect CPS to move its 330,000 students back into remote learning as the district did for several months between 2020 and 2021.
“I am hopeful, and actually confident, that that won’t need to be a citywide decision,” she said during an online Q&A session. “We’ll see. We’re gonna have to see what happens with omicron, but I do not expect that we will be making plans to move entirely remotely and certainly not for extended periods, even if that were a thing.”
Arwady did note that even if city and CPS officials “double down” on safety precautions, it still may be necessary to move individual schools into remote learning in the event of a large outbreak.
Arwady, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS officials have consistently maintained that the risk of COVID-19 to students is lower inside schools than it is with remote learning.
As of Thursday, about 7,200 CPS students and staffers are in quarantine or isolation, while the district is reporting more than 5,200 total COVID-19 cases since the start of the school year. Approximately 4,000 of those cases are among the student population.
The city itself is currently averaging 926 new cases per day, per CDPH data. That’s down slightly from a week ago, but Chicago’s positivity rate has risen to 4.4% from 4% a week ago.
Chicago is also now averaging nearly 7.5 COVID-19 deaths per day, a rate Arwady said the city hasn’t seen “in months.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday that early data on the omicron variant suggests it is more transmissible than delta, with a doubling time of about two days. A new study from the University of Hong Kong also reportedly found omicron multiplies 70 times faster in the human bronchial tubes than the initial COVID-19 strain or the delta variant.
Ahead of the upcoming winter break, CPS announced it will distribute 150,000 take-home testing kits to students living in communities that have been the most negatively impacted by COVID-19.
“We hope that all CPS families will take action to keep themselves and others safe, and testing prior to the return to school after winter break offers yet another layer of protection,” CPS Chief Health Officer Dr. Kenneth Fox said in a statement.
CPS CEO Pedro Martinez previously said the district is working on “contingency plans” in the event CPS does need to shut down a school or the full district due to COVID-19 spread.
Meanwhile, Chicago Teachers Union leaders continue pushing CPS to come up with a concrete metric that can be used to determine when a shutdown needs to occur.
“What I need you to understand, is that if you do not formulate a clear guideline, a guardrail if you will, that parents, the public and the members of my union can understand and have some confidence in, that it’s gonna cause problems as we look into the new year,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey told the Board of Education on Wednesday.
Sharkey said he’s “not looking for a repeat of last winter,” when the CTU nearly went on strike after CPS began returning some students and staff back to schools for in-person learning, but he’s also "not going to be the frog who doesn’t jump out of the pot before I get boiled.”
“We need the Chicago Department of Public Health, the mayor of the city, Dr. Arwady to make some clear policies so that we understand what the guardrails are,” he said. “We need to be able to assure people we can run schools in person as much as we can and that we’re also going to be safe.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.