Thursday marked the last day for Chicago Public Schools families to turn in their at-home COVID-19 test for students ahead of Monday’s return to in-person learning.
CPS distributed over 150 thousand PCR tests Tuesday at more than 300 schools in communities hardest hit by the pandemic. Students who test positive will be asked to stay home.
Pedro Martinez, CEO of Chicago Public Schools is confident in the return to in-person learning from winter break and says that rates of COVID-19 cases within CPS have proven to be lower than the community positivity rate.
“In fact, what we see is cases start in the community and they come into the schools,” Martinez said. “As Omicron was coming in right before break, we were transitioning more classes to be remote … we’re moving very proactively to make sure that we prevent outbreaks.”
Earlier this week, pictures from the Chicago Teachers Union showed an overflow at Fed-Ex Drop Box locations where CPS families were expected to leave completed COVID testing kits. Some families were left “scrambling to find safe and secure places to leave their kits,” CTU said in a tweet.
According to Martinez, over 37,000 accounts were set-up by families as of this morning, which points to the number of parents participating in COVID-19 at-home testing.
“It shows that our parents are taking it seriously,” Martinez said. “We were able to pick up all of those tests … All of those tests were safe in waterproof packets. They are being received by our vendor’s lab.”
Still, Martinez is expecting a high positivity rate come January.
“Because we’ve been on break for two weeks, we’re going to see a rise in cases which is why it’s important for us to catch those cases as early as possible,” Martinez said.
CTU has proposed a 14 day pause across the system if cases citywide rise at high rates. Maria Moreno, treasurer of CTU, told WTTW News on Tuesday that CTU is demanding there be rapid COVID testing Monday for all students and staff.
‘When they’re coming in in the morning, they should be tested,” Moreno said. “That will give us a clear indication of where the level of transmission of COVID is in homes. That’s a really big concern because we don't know what’s going on in the schools because there’s very little testing going on.”
Martinez says there could be a possibility of testing more than once a week, but pointed to the national COVID testing kits shortage.
“Rapid tests are not as strong as PCR tests,” Martinez said. “For me, my fear is that [rapid testing in school] will give us a false sense of security. The real solution is vaccines.”
According to Martinez, over 91% of CPS staff and almost all teachers are vaccinated but he says that uneven vaccination rates across the city are playing a role within schools.
“I have schools where over 80% of the children are vaccinated, other schools where under 10% of children are vaccinated,” Martinez said. “In those types of situations, we have empowered our principals, as they see cases coming into the school from the community, the ability to transition those classes immediately to remote even before contact tracing.”